JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is endorsing Sen. John McCain as the Arizona Republican appears poised Tuesday to gather the final few delegates he’ll need to wrap up the Republican nomination for president.

‘‘I said at the beginning I wasn’t going to endorse anybody, that I could enthusiastically support any of the five. Now, Sen. McCain’s won the nomination and I’m going to support him, do everything I can do to help him,’’ Barbour told The Associated Press. ‘‘I’m going to encourage Mississippians to vote for him in the Republican primary on March 11.’’

Barbour was Republican National Committee chairman from 1993-97 and is still active in raising money and campaigning for GOP candidates across the country.

The Mississippi Democratic Party issued a news release Monday challenging Barbour to denounce remarks by the Rev. John Hagee, a megachurch pastor from San Antonio who has endorsed McCain. The Democrats cited a statement Hagee made during a public radio interview in 2006 that Hurricane Katrina was God’s retribution for homosexual sin in New Orleans.

‘‘If Gov. Barbour is so eager to endorse John McCain, he should explain to Mississippi families hit hard by Hurricane Katrina why he refuses to call on McCain to condemn John Hagee’s offensive remarks,’’ Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said Monday in the news release.

McCain said Friday that he has unspecified disagreements with Hagee.

Dowdy also said McCain has voted against Hurricane Katrina recovery legislation, including an amendment in 2005 to extend Medicaid coverage to Katrina victims for five months.

‘‘Mississippi deserves better than a governor who will put party loyalty ahead of our families by supporting a candidate who has consistently voted against Katrina relief efforts,’’ Dowdy said.

There are 256 delegates at stake Tuesday in contests in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. Mississippi is alone in having a primary March 11.

McCain now has 1,014 delegates. That is 177 short of the 1,191 needed for the nomination. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has 257 delegates.

Barbour, in the AP interview Friday, said he was going to ‘‘discourage Mississippians from voting in the Democratic primary.’’

‘‘There could be a temptation for some who are going to vote for McCain in the fall to vote in the Democratic primary because they think Clinton would be easier to beat or they think Obama would be easier to beat,’’ Barbour said. ‘‘My advice is vote in the Republican primary for what you’re for. Vote for Sen. McCain. Let the Democrats nominate whoever they want to nominate, and we’ll go from there.’’

Barbour’s name frequently appears on pundits’ lists of potential Republican vice presidential picks. A University of Georgia student, Josh Jones, created a Web site to tout the idea — www.drafthaley.com.

Jones, 22, told AP last week that he has no financial connections to Barbour. He said he met the Mississippi governor in 2006 when Barbour was in Georgia to campaign for Republican Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

Barbour said he learned about the Web site from one of his sons.

‘‘It’s some college kid doing something that ... ,’’ Barbour said Friday, pausing to find words. ‘‘I don’t think anything’s going to come of it, if that’s what you’re asking.’’

Barbour dismissed questions about the possibility of being on the Republican ticket.

‘‘Well, look, first of all I’m on hurricane duty,’’ Barbour said. ‘‘Secondly, I don’t think McCain will start thinking about who to have as a running mate until summer. The idea that he needs to pick a conservative to unite the party — by summer nobody’s going to believe that. Republicans and conservatives will be universally united behind Sen. McCain by summer. So, I just don’t give it any credence. It’s not something you run for. And besides that, I just think it’s very unlikely to happen.

‘‘Any Republican candidate for president who doesn’t carry Mississippi is not going to carry five states,’’ Barbour said. ‘‘So, a running mate from Mississippi doesn’t make much sense.’’



AP-CS-03-03-08 1759EST

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