But in August that year came Hurricane Katrina's devastation and the ever-lasting image of Barbour's daily news conferences where he was both solemn and compassionate while proving to have an intimate knowledge of every aspect of the disaster and pending recovery effort.
Time and again, Barbour captured not just the imagination of Mississippians. To a larger extent, he captivated Americans as he spoke of "hitching up our britches" in recovering from what he repeatedly and accurately called the worst natural disaster in the nation's history.
Barbour came out of Katrina's devastation with soaring approval ratings and has never looked back. He cruised to re-election in 2007 with 58 percent of the vote.
As the tenure of the 64-year-old Republican comes to an end at noon Tuesday, he remains popular. According to a November poll by Public Policy Polling, the Yazoo City native had a 60 percent favorability rating, the highest of the 37 governors polled by the firm.
According to a March poll by the same company, Barbour's favorability rating was at 52 percent, though he had the highest approval rating among white voters of any governor in the nation. The same poll, though, showed Mississippians favoring former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee over their own governor in a preference for president. Both Huckabee and Barbour opted out of a run for president soon after that poll was taken.
The polls, though, tell only a small portion of the story. No doubt, Barbour will go down in Mississippi politics as a transformative figure, whether it was his success in dealing with the Legislature, the multiple natural disasters he faced, his guidance of the state Republican Party to unprecedented heights or his political fundraising acumen, which enabled him to surpass past efforts by more than threefold.
"He was a tremendously effective executive in an office that was statutorily designed to be weak," said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's Stennis Institute of Government. "By the sheer force of his personality, he demonstrated he could get things done.
"Of course, there was his response to events, such as Katrina, that will be a big part of his legacy."
Barbour says his career in elective office is finished. Despite being considered a serious contender - among the top-tier candidates - and despite having staff in place, Barbour announced in April that he would not be a a contender for president.
He plans to return to BGR, the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that he helped form and make one of the most powerful in the nation. And he will make himself available on what is expected to be a lucrative speaking circuit.
The governor said recently he plans to maintain an office in both Jackson and Washington, where he first gained a national reputation as the political director in the Ronald Reagan White House and later as chair of the Republican National Committee.
Somewhat surprisingly, Barbour said recently, that if not for the responsibility he felt to continue to work on the Katrina recovery, he might not have sought a second term. He said he accomplished most of his goals during the first term.
During the first term, Barbour oversaw changes praised by national business groups to the civil justice system to provide businesses more protections from lawsuits. He also pushed through legislation that streamlined the state's then-fractious workforce training efforts while increasing funding.
He never had a veto overridden in eight years. There were instances where proposals would pass the Legislature with near unanimous approval, but after a Barbour veto, Republicans - particularly in the Senate, where he exerted tremendous influence for his entire tenure - would rally behind the governor and uphold the veto.
In his second term, it appeared that a substantial number of Republicans would finally abandon the governor on an issue when he vetoed legislation that would prohibit the government from taking private property for the use of another private entity. But Barbour garnered enough support from Democrats, combined with the Republican support he maintained, to uphold the veto.
Wiseman said that was another Barbour strength - to maintain civil relationships, realizing his opponent on one issue might be his ally on the next.
Barbour knew when to fight and when to compromise. In 2007, when it became apparent that a vast majority of legislators supported full funding for education, despite his budget that appropriated a smaller amount to local school districts, he acquiesced. He blocked a hike in the state's cigarette tax for years before finally yielding as the pressure continued to grow to increase the levy, which was the third lowest in the nation.
Through the years, his biggest fights with legislative Democrats centered around the budget and specifically education funding. Barbour routinely contended the state could not afford the amount of education funding supported by the Democrats. Each year - with the exception of full funding in 2007 - education received less funding than the Democrats proposed, but more than Barbour recommended.
"Purity in politics and government is a loser," Barbour said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, called Barbour's tenure "rough and rumble, but I have to give him pretty high marks, No. 1 because he took an office that was historically weak and made something of it and No. 2 because of his bull-headed tenaciousness. As far as utilizing the position, he was probably the best to ever occupy that office.
"I didn't say most accomplished, but best at utilizing the office."
His political skills might be unmatched in the state. He raised about $12 million - about $8 million more than had been previously raised for a campaign - in defeating incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2003. He leaves office with Republicans in control of the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since the 1800s.
Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, has called Barbour the best economic development governor the state has ever seen. He has overseen the recruitment of several high-profile industries to the state - most noticeably the Toyota manufacturing plant to Blue Springs in Northeast Mississippi.
Yet, the state's employment rate continues to be higher than the national average, and fewer people are employed in the state now than when he took office.
"He has served us so well..," said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who will replace Barbour as governor at noon Tuesday. Bryant said Barbour has "guided Mississippi toward a brighter day."