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With his good ol' boy accent, apple cheeks and corn-pone sincerity, Haley Barbour oozes the sweet-talking con of a used-car salesman who could make you believe a clunker's a Rolls-Royce.

If you came back complaining the jalopy's an oil-burning lemon, ol' Haley would buy you a beer, tell you a joke and sell you new seat covers.

That's what happened to Democrats in the campaign-money investigation: Baffled and bamboozled by Barbour's amiable bombast.

This was supposed to be the lone vindictive day for Dems, resigned to a hellish summer in Sen. Fred Thompson's chamber of horrors. They know they'll be awash in Bill Clinton's sins, his murky cash from the John Huangs, Johnny Chungs and Charlie Treis of the campaign wonderworld.

So like an underdog fighter with a one-punch chance at a knockout, Dems awaited their shot at roly-poly Barbour, ex-Republican national chairman, now big-bucks lobbyist.

At last, because Barbour was a marquee player in these starless hearings, they had TV coverage from CNN and cable news nets.

And they had the paper trail down cold, tracking a $2.1 million scam from Hong Kong to Republican pockets -- foreign dough they suspected fueled Republicans' 1994 TV blitz that won Congress.

Presumably, Barbour's guilty confession would prove the public's cynicism: "They all do it." Dems merely had to turn up the oven for Barbour to wilt.

Didn't happen.

Trouble was, Barbour came out of his corner smiling and mean, a nasty combination. Jabbing the air, he said, "I'm here to put the lie to some infuriatingly phony charges aimed at me personally."

Then with a grin sweet as Mississippi honeysuckle, he said, "Senators, I was born at night, but not last night." No sir, he wasn't "stupid" enough to get caught in a furrin' money mess.

He stuck a bayonet-sized needle in chief critic Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio. Barbour reminded Glenn of his almost-forgotten role in the "Keating Five" scandal: "Like you, Sen. Glenn, I want to be treated fairly."

Glenn smiled like a man chewing barbed wire.

For five hours, Dems chased Barbour around the ring and never laid a hard jab on him.

Oh, sure, they pictured Barbour sitting on the yacht of his Taiwanese benefactor, Ambrous Tung Young, in Hong Kong harbor. They unraveled the dizzying plot -- Young loaned $2.1 million through his U.S. subsidiary to a Republican think tank, the National Policy Forum, with $1.6 mill quickly dumped into the TV campaign that helped Newt Gingrich's revolution triumph.

Barbour dimly remembered the Hong Kong yacht cruise but seemed amazed the illegal loan was hatched overseas: "As best I can recall, I learned about it this year."

Barbour ducked nimbly. He smoothly reminded them of the Democrats' troubles, sympathizing with monies the DNC returned to foreign operators.

"Beats hell out of making deals sitting on a yacht in Hong Kong," snapped frustrated Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.

Wearily, John Glenn recited the evidence refuting Barbour's innocence of dirty dough. "Republicans are dancing on the head of a needle," sighed Glenn. "But we have the power to change campaign laws."

Chances are slim and none. Dems know when they return in the fall, they'll be ambushed by Clinton follies -- shady Asian characters, illicit checks, dialing for dollars by the prez.

Dems were so dispirited, chairman Thompson leveled the field by growling toughly at Barbour. He noted that the payback to Hong Kong tycoon Young was $800,000 short.

"Seems to me we owe this man some money," Thompson rumbled. "He's holding the bag. A deal's a deal."

Barbour wasn't enthused. After all, Haley's wheeling-dealing now in another league. Using the cachet he built as RNC chairman, he's rainmaker for a Washington lobbying outfit.

Among Barbour's clients: Mercedes-Benz, Delta Airlines, Bell South and the Big Five tobacco companies who gave so magnificently to 1996 Republicans.

The game never stops.

Philadelphia Daily News

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