Haley Barbour may try to rewrite the script for 2012 presidential race

“I’m Haley. I’m here because I’m seriously thinking of running for president,” he said to a couple of dozen GOP activists in this state whose first-in-the-nation caucuses are less than a year away. “If you’re not committed, I hope you’ll keep your powder dry and let me have a chance, if I decide to run in April, to compete for your support.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour can seem like a man from another time — out of step not only with the age of Barack Obama, but also with the era of the tea party movement. He is an insider’s insider — a backroom dealer, a trader of favors, a conservator of the establishment — at a moment when the Republican Party is in the grip of an insurgency against all three.

But however abundant Barbour’s liabilities are, he would enter the 2012 race as a credible contender, even a formidable one, in a GOP field that is the most wide open and unsettled it has been in half a century.

The former Republican National Committee chairman — and, yes, people call him Haley, like a one-name rock star — would start with a political network unmatched by any other potential GOP candidate, with the possible exception of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). Although Barbour barely registers in the polls, even among Republicans, it is hard to think of any other figure who could tap a deeper reservoir of affection and gratitude among the people who write the checks and run the party machinery.