MANCHESTER, N.H. — He is not like them. And the breakfast crowd at Chez Vachon knows it the instant Haley Barbour opens his mouth.
It’s not that they haven’t met Southern politicians before. Or that they don’t recognize the oddly shaped pin on his lapel as the state of Mississippi. The people of New Hampshire have been courted by politicians of all shapes and sizes over the years. It’s just that very few of them have encountered an accent quite like this.
“I noticed it, absolutely. You notice it,” said Jim Waddell, a state Representative from Hampton. He’s a one-time jogging partner of President Bill Clinton and recently shared breakfast here with Barbour. “Some people might say, ‘Ah, that’s phony, or that’s not real, or that’s hickish, or that’s redneckish.’ But I don’t feel that way. ... From my own point of view, I love a Southern accent and I love the way they use a lot of expressions in it. It’s lively.”
It may be lively, but the question is whether Barbour’s profound drawl will hurt his campaign to win over voters in the nation’s first presidential primary. The consensus on the trail this month was that the Mississippi native could be a hard sell in a Northern city set nearly 1,500 miles -— and a world away, culturally — from the governor’s mansion in Jackson.
He even mocks himself as being a “fat redneck.” Born in Yazoo City, a place that exists only in books and movies for most New Hampshire voters, Barbour is a real-life cutout of the back-slapping Southern boss who has attracted a handful of unfriendly nicknames on the Internet. But he can’t laugh off all the criticism.
The 63-year-old politician comes from a world where white supremacist groups were an accepted and active part of society not so long ago. And he has drawn criticism in recent months for statements suggesting tacit support for such groups.
But it is the thick accent that is most striking.
“Once he’s been here 15 times, they’ll get used to it,” said Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who also had breakfast with Barbour earlier this month during his first official trip to the state this cycle.
Barbour is already scheduled to return to New Hampshire in the next few weeks. And he is building a ground team that expects to compete for the nomination next winter. But he indirectly acknowledged that he’s fighting an uphill battle so far from home.
Asked about his expectations for New Hampshire should he pursue the presidency, Barbour told Roll Call, “To do well.”