IN this age of blow-dried, homogenous politicians, Haley Barbour sounds like a throwback to the regional political bosses of old. The burly new chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) makes no attempt to hide his roots. The Southern-speak rolls off his tongue like water down the Mississippi: "Ah tohld someone...." "Ah believe...."
The accent can be a little misleading. Mr. Barbour left his native Mississippi long ago and established a reputation as one of the leading lawyer-lobbyists in Washington. Both his understanding of the world beyond the capital and his inside-the-beltway savvy will come in handy as Barbour undertakes the daunting task of moving the RNC in a different direction.
Barbour, who won a heated leadership race in January, sees his task as twofold. First he wants to redirect the party's resources from Washington into grass-roots organizing at the state level. "There's a lot more to be gained from outside Washington," he asserts, "in the development and articulation of the Republican message." As part of that strategy, Barbour has been traveling around the country recently to meet with local Republican officials.
Barbour's other goal is to change the party apparatus from being only a fund-raising organ into an organization that can provide the party with intellectual leadership.
It was the failure to articulate ideas well that contributed, in large measure, to George Bush's 1992 defeat, Barbour believes.
"Our biggest mistake in 1992 was that people didn't sense that the Republican Party stood for something," he says in a telephone interview.
Barbour believes the RNC can take the lead in reasserting the party's principles. His model is the way former Sen. William Brock ran the RNC in the late 1970s.