Haley Barbour makes pitch for party unity at conservative gathering

Haley Barbour makes pitch for party unity at conservative gathering
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, seen here on Capitol Hill testifying about the impact of the Gulf oil spill, was in Washington on Friday at Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Conference. (Harry Hamburg / Associated Press)
Haley Barbour

may have exited the Republican presidential campaign, but the 2012 election is very much on the

Mississippi

governor’s mind.

On Friday, Barbour preached a message of party unity to a

Washington

gathering of religious conservative activists, warning against applying strict litmus tests to the party’s presidential contenders.

"I'm going to tell ya’ll something:

Barack Obama

has worn out two sets of kneepads, down on his knees, praying that conservatives will split up and that we'll have some third-party candidate," Barbour told Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Conference.

He recalled past presidential elections in which third-party candidates such as George Wallace and Ross Perot took votes that might have gone to

Republicans

. He also pointed to a recent special House election in

New York

in which a self-described

"tea party"

candidate siphoned off votes that, Republicans say, cost them the seat.

Barbour, a former national Republican chairman, told the Christian conservatives that "for our country's future, for our grandchildren, you've got to get it in your head right now: I'm going to fight for (my) candidate, but when it's over, I’m going to vote for the person that's going to beat Barack Obama."

He urged "conservatives, religious people, small-government people" to prepare for the fact that "we are not going to have purity.  We are not going to have a perfect candidate."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Barbour denied that he was referring to the possible nomination of GOP front-runner

Mitt Romney

, whose Mormon religion has alienated some Christian evangelicals.

paul.west@latimes.com