The Big Questions: Why Barbour Passed and the 2012 Field

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Mark Halperin’s answers this week in TIME.

Why did Haley Barbour take a pass on the presidential race?

Barbour says his family gave him “total support” for a run, but behind the scenes, his wife Marsha and their sons were known to be gravely concerned about the many hazards of campaign scrutiny. For months, several of Barbour’s closest political friends warned him that his history as a big-money Beltway lobbyist, his series of clumsy statements on racial matters, and pervasive anti-Southern bigotry would doom his candidacy and diminish him in the process.

So who benefits?

Tim Pawlenty and, if they run, Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman stand the best chances of scooping up Barbour’s staff and fundraisers; whoever takes the lion’s share of Barbour’s backers becomes the establishment alternative to front runner Mitt Romney. If he runs, Mike Huckabee will have a clearer shot in the key primaries of South Carolina and Florida and a chance to be the race’s dominant Southern candidate (unless Newt Gingrich suddenly steps up his game). But Romney can rest assured that his fundraising abilities will remain unmatched — for the time being.

If Obama is so vulnerable, why do so few want to take him on?

Most Republican brainiacs fear that potent GOP talking points about high gas prices, health care quagmires and stubborn unemployment will evaporate in the face of Obama’s fundraising and political talent and the advantages of incumbency. Running for President often means giving up your day job, and it always means unrelenting (and possibly life-changing) scrubbing from political opponents and the media. The pending decisions of Daniels and Huckabee will tell us a lot about whether the Republican Party truly thinks Obama can be toppled.

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