NEAL CONAN, HOST:
After the Republican convention put down a Ron Paul rebellion yesterday, the rest of the proceedings enrolled according to script. And with about nine weeks left to go, the freshly nominated ticket finds itself about even in the polls, with a good shot at majorities at both the House and the Senate. The convention provides an opportunity to define the message. And tomorrow night, Mitt Romney gets a chance to present himself to voters.
Joining us now from radio row at the Republican convention in Tampa, former Mississippi governor and former Republican Party chair Haley Barbour. And, Governor Barbour, nice to have you back on the program.
HALEY BARBOUR: Hey, Neal. Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: And before we get to politics, I know you're concerned about Hurricane Isaac. You must have had some flashbacks from seven years ago today.
BARBOUR: Well, yeah. Katrina was seven years ago, but thank God this hurricane is nothing like Katrina. It's mostly a rain event. It's very large, Neal, but it's never been very powerful, hadn't had very high winds. We are blessed. I don't know about Louisiana. The storm came onshore there. The biggest risk for us is, if we really do get 12 to 20 inches of rain, that it ruins the crops.
I mean, we got a big soybean crop out in the field at 17-and-a-half dollars a bushel, plus a major cotton crop. Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, if you get 12-20 inches of rain through the agricultural areas, it'll be billions of dollars. That will be the big economic effect of this storm, at least for Mississippi. Like I said, I can't speak for Louisiana.
CONAN: Well, I hope everybody - you and yours are doing fine.
BARBOUR: Well, thank you very much. We are. Thank you.
CONAN: Well, now to politics. And if you had to say this election was about one thing, what would you say it's about?
BARBOUR: Well, first of all, like every re-election of a president, it's a referendum on the president's record. And that's Obama's big problem. The American people think his policies have failed. In fact, a lot of them think his polices have been counterproductive, that make it - that his policies make it harder to create jobs, harder to improve the state - the country's financial condition, harder to improve the economy.
Secondly, though, Mitt Romney should go beyond that and not just say vote Obama out because he hadn't done a good job. And Mitt Romney will, in my opinion, tomorrow say - tomorrow night, he'll say to the American people: Here's what I'm going to do. Here's why I'm going to do it, and here is how it's going to help turn our country around and get us back on the right track, give people something to vote for.
Mitt Romney trusts the American people enough to tell them the truth. And I thought last night's convention set a great tone for truth-telling, for being straightforward and factual and saying, this, you know, this isn't going be easy. This is - not everything is going to be popular. But the longer we let these problems go on, the harder they're going to be to solve, the worse the medicine's going to be. That's why we need to act now.
CONAN: Some would say that's not exactly the happy warrior, but these are different times, of course.
BARBOUR: Well, people want to know the truth. Like I said, they're tired of happy talk.
CONAN: As you look ahead, you can count, as well as anybody in the Republican Party. How do you see the path to election? Is this going to be decided in, what, seven, eight states?
BARBOUR: Well, the likelihood is it's going to be 12 or fewer states that'll be in play by the end of the day. There are number of states that are going to vote for Obama, like Massachusetts, and there are number of states who are going to vote for Romney, like Mississippi. And, however, there are at least a dozen states that could be won by somebody else. And, frankly, every one of them was won by Obama last time. I don't think there's a state McCain won that is at risk. One could say Arizona. I doubt it. One could say Missouri. I doubt it. But, yeah, a handful of states will decide this. You make the point, Neal, that presidential elections are not literally national elections. They are, in fact, 50 little elections.
BARBOUR: Fifty-one little elections. I forgot...
CONAN: Got to throw D.C. in there. Yeah.
BARBOUR: You District of Columbia guys won't let me forget that.
BARBOUR: We'll spot you those three, Neal.
CONAN: OK. I think those are going blue. But as you look at it, where would you focus: Florida, Ohio, Nevada?
BARBOUR: Well, I would not go to the exclusion of any of that. This is a national campaign. It has to be national. But Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, those are the 12 states that I think most everybody agrees are in play or likely to be in play. And I wouldn't - I would contend for every single one of them.
CONAN: You mentioned the message, and it's fundamentally about the economy and jobs. How important is it to stay on message, and how much does it hurt when you get distractions like - the - Congressman Akin's remarks the other day on abortion?
BARBOUR: Well, of course, the whole Obama campaign has been a distraction, because they know that if the campaign is a referendum on Obama's record, he doesn't have a chance. He can't run on his record. So the Republicans need, every time they can, to get back on what is on the minds of the American people. The American people at the dinner table are talking about job losses, inability to find jobs, mortgages being foreclosed. They're talking about the way the economy has gone backwards.
A recent survey, Neal, said that by two-to-one or a larger margin, the American people thought the economy had gone in the wrong direction under Obama. The financial condition of the federal government had gone on the wrong direction under Obama. The standing of the United States in the world had gone in the wrong direction under Obama. And the ability of the government - United States government to solve problems had gone on the wrong direction under Obama. That's what people are talking about at home at night. And that's what - always, that's what elections ought to be about. And every time we let it get off on something else, then that's to our detriment.
CONAN: I hear you staying on message, and I suspect the campaign will do its best to stay on message, too. In these days of the superPACs, where the campaign is not the only entity that is creating commercials, how do you keep them on message?
BARBOUR: Some of them, you can't. Some of them you can. Something like Priorities USA, which is Obama's - run by a bunch of former Obama staff people. Look, they're going to be as on-message as anybody in the world. I'm not saying they're coordinating with Obama. I have no reason to believe they are. But they get it.
They know what Obama's trying to do, what he's trying to say, and they know how to help him say it. American Crossroads, on our side, it's the same way. You know, they're not coordinating with Romney, but they get it. They're professionals, and so they'll stay on message. What - you do give some special interest groups some time that'll get off run and down rabbit trails, and sometimes it can be detrimental to the effort.
CONAN: How united is the party? We saw some very upset Ron Paul supporters yesterday. They might be, what, 10 percent of the party?
BARBOUR: Well, in the recent polling, more than 90 percent of Republicans say they are voting for Romney. Interestingly - and this is very unusual in my experience - a higher percentage of Republicans say they are supporting Romney than Democrat percentage say they are supporting Obama. It's unusual that the incumbent doesn't have a higher degree of loyalty in his own party than the challenger. But that's the case. And look why: Because Barack Obama is the great uniter of Republicans and conservatives.
CONAN: Great uniter in opposition, is what you're saying.
BARBOUR: That's correct. And his record, his policies, his direction unites Republicans to make a change and get our country back on the right track.
CONAN: We're talking with former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, also former chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a founding planner of the BGR Group. He's with us from Radio Row at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
There are some other voices in the party, and we've heard people like Jeb Bush and Dan Quayle and Bob Dole talking about the need of the party to reach out to change the tone of its address to minorities, to African-Americans, to Latinos and to women.
BARBOUR: Well, when I ran for reelection in Mississippi, I got more than 20 percent of African-American vote. That's the second-highest that any Republican that I know of in Mississippi has ever gotten. Senator Thad Cochran, our senior United States senator, typically gets in the high 20s. And so I'm proud of that, but I will tell you, I get asked all the time how to do it. Well, I did it with exactly the same message that I have for everybody else in the state. And I thought one of the high points of my campaign, the largest black newspaper in the state wrote an editorial in which they wrote: I don't know why you're all complaining about him. He's just doing what he said he's going to do.
And that's what I try to do. I try to do what I said I was going to do, whether it's tort reform, controlling spending, balancing the budget without raising taxes, growing the economy, improved workforce training. And after Katrina, African-Americans in Mississippi saw everybody's going to get treated the same. Everybody's going to get treated fairly, that we were going to be a government for all our citizens. And that made me get very, very high percentages of the African-American community in the areas that were hit hard by Katrina, because they saw firsthand in their own lives that they were getting treated just the same way everybody else was getting treated.
CONAN: A lot of people say this is going to be a base election, that 46 percent of the country's already decided to vote for Barack Obama, 46 percent has already decided to vote for Mitt Romney. And those few people in the middle who are going to decide this election, those people in the middle tend to be more interested in people who will reach out across the aisle work with the other side, people who will compromise. The Republican Party, fairly or not, has an image more and more as a party that is inflexible and will refuse to work with the other side.
BARBOUR: It's interesting that you would say that. There are - those of us who deal with this a lot have a very different view. Barack Obama refuses to even try to work with the Republicans in Congress. He has never tried. When he had overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate the first two years, he totally ignored the Republicans. Then when he needed them, he's been unwilling to work to with them. And - what we need is a president like Ronald Reagan, who led. He had a Democratic majority in the House every day for his eight years, but he learned to work with them.
And he enjoyed working with them, even though they didn't agree on many things. Reagan compromised over and over and over. But Reagan got the Reagan economic plan passed, immigration reform passed, Simpson-Mazzoli, Social Security reform passed, the 1986 tax reform bill. That right - just that is just four gigantic pieces of bipartisan legislation. And it's not partisan when I say that. Bill Clinton led. When Bill Clinton lost the election in 1994 and you had Republican majorities in both Houses, he didn't quit. He didn't start carping. He didn't start blaming and complaining.
He went over and learned, even though he didn't really like him very much, perhaps. He went over and learned how to work with the Republicans, with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. And they passed welfare reform, the most consequential social legislation of a generation. They passed the first balanced budget in a generation, because Bill Clinton was willing to lead. We need a president that'll lead. And to blame that on Congress, Congress can't lead, Neal. I don't care if it's a Republican Congress or a Democrat Congress. Five hundred and thirty five people can't lead. The president has to lead, and we have not seen that leadership at all.
CONAN: Some would say the president thought he had a deal with the majority - the speaker of the House on a deal. And the speaker was undercut by some of his own constituents in Congress.
BARBOUR: Well, you can go through time and time and time again of Simpson-Bowles. Here's a president who wants a commission to make a recommendation. He makes a recommendation, and it's very clear that many, many Republicans are willing to accept Simpson-Bowles as a starting place. I mean, nobody on any side, I don't think, was willing to say, OK, I'll take every single thing in it. But it was clearly a starting place with bipartisan support. The president ignored it. It's his commission. He ignored it.
The president told the Hispanic community: I'm going to have an immigration bill in my first two years. Never saw the light of day. After the election in 2010, he proposed the DREAM Act in a lame-duck session. I mean, in a lame-duck session, the adage(ph) you're going to take up complex legislation when you're really there to try to get the budget patched up and get over to next year, it was unserious. And there's been no serious efforts. It's interesting. The only two presidents in my lifetime that have ever tried to pass serious immigration reform were Republicans: Ronald Reagan, who succeeded, and George Bush, who failed.
CONAN: Haley Barbour, thanks very much for your time.
BARBOUR: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Former RNC chairman Haley Barbour. Next week, we'll talk with former DNC chairman, Howard Dean. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.