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.