Haley Barbour is a free man.
The veteran Republican politician's final term as Mississippi governor ended in January, and he is not running for president—or for any other office. Barbour is instead "volunteering" (as he puts it) for American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove; serving on the board of Resurgent Republic, a conservative polling firm founded by Mitt Romney adviser Ed Gillespie; and working as a tax lobbyist. In his new freelancer role, Barbour spends a lot more time in Washington, D.C., than when he was governor.
On a trip to the nation's capital this week, Barbour had breakfast with reporters in the basement of the swanky St. Regis Hotel, where he opened up about why Romney is not as conservative as he claims, the sort of running mate Romney should choose and why the current campaign finance system should be dismantled.
Romney the 'least conservative' candidate
Barbour, who mulled his own run for president early in 2011, has never been a full-throated supporter of Mitt Romney. Barbour has declined to formally endorse Romney, and his support appears to stem more from allegiance to the party than conviction.
On Friday he said that despite his belief that Romney is the "least conservative" candidate of this year's GOP field, the party will unite behind him.
"We are the conservative party of the United States and the Democrats are the liberal party of the United States. But we are a broad party. There are a lot of people in our party who are not that conservative, including our nominee for president," Barbour said Friday. "He was the least conservative of the serious candidates and he won the nomination with the party totally united behind him."
Although Romney's history of moderate policy proposals may have made winning the Republican primary difficult, Barbour added, his record will prove an asset in the general election as he tries to woo the nation's independents.
"I can see how we would be much more adept at campaigning for those votes," Barbour said. "In that sense it may turn out to be advantageous that he became the nominee."
Republicans argue they have a deep bench of contenders for the vice presidential slot, ranging from veteran policymakers like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to the fresh-faced Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida and Sen. Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire. But if Barbour were advising the Romney campaign—which he cannot, officially, given his ties to Crossroads—he would offer one piece of advice: "Do no harm." He thinks a Hail Mary pick, like John McCain's choice of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, is out of the question this cycle.
"In the vice presidential picking business, the first thing you've got to do is decide, What do you want to accomplish? Or what do you want to try to accomplish?" he said. "The first rule is to do no harm. It's the Hippocratic oath rule of vice presidents. You want someone who doesn't hurt you. Secondly, do you need somebody to unite the party?"
It is "least likely," he said, that Romney will pick someone who "reshuffles the deck."
"It looks to me like Romney will try to pick somebody to do no harm or try to pick somebody to give him a state," he said.
Barbour suggested that Rubio or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez could help with Hispanic voters, a demographic that President Barack Obama dominated in 2008.
Dissolve outside campaign finance groups
Even though Barbour is currently affiliated with American Crossroads, a group with a sister organization, Crossroads GPS, which can legally spend to influence elections without revealing its donors, he's no fan of the legal system that allows the latter to exist.
Barbour expressed frustration over restrictions on the amount of donations given directly to political candidates and parties, and called for dismantling the current regulations.
His proposal is similar to the one advocated by Newt Gingrich and Romney during the primaries, which would allow unlimited donations to candidates so long as the source of the money was made public within 24 hours of handing over the check.
"I have no idea why we don't do that," he said. "I think people are right to think we have a bad system. And the reason we have a bad system is because the two organizations that you are limited in giving money to are the campaign itself and the candidate's party."
Barbour disagrees with the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed unlimited election spending by labor unions and corporations.
But so long as the current system exists he'll continue raising money for outside groups.
"So long as you've got the strictures we have now," he said, "you're going to have the system like we've got."