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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.”
Not to win? “To do well,” he repeated.
And he was largely dismissive when asked whether his Southern roots complicated his ability to connect with local voters. “Not so far,” he said.
How Advanced Is the Shift?
The Mississippi governor has what is referred to as “an advanced Southern shift,” according to Kara Becker, an assistant professor of linguistics at Reed College.
“That means his vowels have shifted from the position of standard American English in a way that characterizes Southern speech,” she said, noting that Barbour’s shift exceeds that of President Jimmy Carter, of Georgia, and Arkansas native Clinton, who finished first and second, respectively, in their New Hampshire primaries.
“When we work with accents, there’s a question of degree,” Becker continued. “It sounds from what I hear that this guy has all of it going on.”
The effect on voters is open to debate, however.
The Southern accent is the most marked in American culture and sometimes carries a stigma, according to Becker. “A lot of negative qualities we think about Southern people we think about the Southern accent,” she said. Specifically, she believes the drawl can evoke an uneducated, working-class stereotype.
On the other hand, politicians such as Carter and Clinton were able to use the drawl to their advantage, something Becker calls the “Dolly Parton stereotype.”
“They’re tapping into the positive attributes — ‘Come up on my porch and have a mint julep. I’m pleasant. I’m kind,’” she said.
Another expert suggested that accents no longer play a significant role in American politics.
“About 30 or 40 years ago, I would have even been so bold as to say that a Southerner wouldn’t have much of a chance of being president,” said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College and author of the 2004 book “Presidential Voices.” “But since that time, we’ve had a few. People are used to that.”
Fixin’ to Get Folksy
Barbour’s drawl inspired a few blank stares during breakfast — a waitress later admitted she wasn’t sure she understood his order — but he generally demonstrated a folksiness that diners could identify with.
It didn’t seem to matter that he drank tea with his eggs over light or began sentences with phrases such as, “I was just fixin’ to ask you something.” Voters got it when he referenced “kays” (keys) or “ta-em” (time), as the discussion often turned to common interests such as huntin’ and fishin’.
“On a one-to-one basis, he’s very engaging. He’s got charisma. He’s got a very good sense of humor. He’s self-deprecating. And that’s going to help him,” Ovide Lamontagne, a New Hampshire conservative leader, told Roll Call. “The one thing that struck me in listening to him is that he’s very comfortable in his skin. For political observers and ultimately voters, authenticity is an important part of the fabric of the candidate in this election cycle. ... But he’s brand-new to us. Even though we know his name, a lot of us don’t know him personally.”
Lamontagne said he wants to learn more about Barbour’s background before rating his conservative credentials.
It’s no secret that Barbour has strong ties to the Washington, D.C., establishment as a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association.
He also drew heavy criticism for refusing to denounce a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, whom some wanted to honor with a state license. And he’s still asked about a recent Weekly Standard interview in which he offered a favorable remark about white supremacist groups known as Citizens Councils.
“You heard of the Citizens Councils?” he said in the interview. “Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders.”
Some believe such comments will overshadow superficial concerns about his drawl, and Democrats have promised if he is the Republican nominee to make them an issue.
“It’s not the fact that Barbour is from Mississippi or has an accent that makes him look like an idiot, it’s what he says with his accent,” Jennifer Jacob Brown, a columnist with the Meridian (Mississippi) Star, wrote last month. “When the primary campaign begins to really boil, it won’t be Barbour’s accent, weight, or Mississippi address that cost him the most — it will be his issues with race, his history as a Washington lobbyist, and his tendency to speak before he thinks that will give his competitors plenty of angles from which to attack.”
Indeed, back at the breakfast table, Barbour noted his lobbying experience while discussing health care costs with Bedford resident Ed Moquin.
“You used to lobby for all the drug companies?” Moquin said, cutting off Barbour in the middle of a sentence.
“Not all of them. Three of the biggest,” Barbour casually replied.
“Is that so?” quipped an obviously bothered Moquin, a registered Democrat who may participate in the 2012 GOP primary, which is open to unaffiliated voters.
Even if he doesn’t, Moquin is representative of a general election voter Barbour ultimately hopes to win over.
After the governor had moved to another breakfast table, Moquin suggested Barbour’s Southern roots wouldn’t be an issue.
“We’ve had Southern politicians here before. We’ve had Clinton, [former Vice President Al] Gore from Tennessee,” he said. “I think we’re all tolerant of accents. I mean, this is a French neighborhood and we got a lot of accents around here. That’s not the part that bothers me.”
So what bothers him?
“Everything else,” Moquin said.