With a constant campaign that geared up following his 2003 loss and an Internet presence aimed at a new generation of voters, Bobby Jindal is poised to become the youngest governor in America ' if you believe the polls.
"Only one dolla'! Com' on down, now! See the twooooo-headed rattlesnake!"
The carnival worker barks at people passing by whether they look or not. When eye contact is made, he points with both hands to a gruesome painting hanging over his booth of a snake with four eyes and a set of necks ' caught in Itasca, Texas, the sign promises. There's also a yellow tortoise.
"Com' on folks, jus' step right up! An albino turtle! Right in d'ere! You gotta see it!"
With no takers, the carny steps back in the makeshift booth, leans his head on a fist and stares at a booth selling deep-fried Twinkies for a few minutes before making another pitch. It's an immaculate May afternoon in Gonzales, home of the annual Jambalaya Festival, with an array of bands, one serious cookoff and two-headed reptiles. A light breeze carries over the smell of onions and sausage cooking in cast-iron pots, and the sound of a fiddle floats over from the main stage. Just beyond the snake booth, a huge stir of excitement is attracting curiosity.
"That's Bobby Jindal," says a camouflage-clad man, making his way over to the Metairie congressman. He hands a Coors Light can to his wife and wipes a wet palm against his pants. After a quick handshake with Jindal, the man is given a push card by a volunteer outlining the candidate's bid for governor. He sticks it in his back pocket and walks away smiling. Others follow, but some only want a sticker. Pretty soon there's a crowd gathered around Jindal and, at one point, it overshadows the line for jambalaya.
When folks from south Louisiana attend a fair or festival, they expect to see a politician or two. It's a political rite of passage, and a form of retail politics Jindal has mastered.
There would normally be hordes of politicos working the Jambalaya Festival in this fashion, especially since it's an election year, but Team Jindal is the only campaign in the field this Saturday morning. "That's the way we do it," says the state's top Republican. "I wake up every morning as if I'm 10 points behind. No one is going to outwork us."
Jindal, 36, has been leading in a range of polls for more than a year now but still campaigns like a hungry underdog and says he sleeps just a few hours each night. The latest telephone survey conducted earlier this month by the Baton Rouge-based Southern Media Research had Jindal clocking in at 63 percent in a four-person field.
His closest competitor was state Sen. Walter Boasso, a recently converted Democrat from St. Bernard Parish polling at 14 percent. Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier Parish, a fellow Democrat, recorded 4 percent, while New Orleans businessman John Georges, the other Republican in the race, came in with 1 percent. The undecided vote was 17 percent, and even with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat who's still being coy about his plans, included in the survey, the figures don't change much.
But Jindal knows as well as anyone that leads can be blown. When he ran for governor in 2003, he led the 17-candidate open primary, capturing 33 percent of the vote. He appeared atop several polls in the following weeks but eventually lost out by only four points to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who chose not to run for re-election as her post-Katrina performance Hurricane Katrina continues to be criticized.
These days, Jindal has kind words for his former arch nemesis. "You know, I really think she has gotten a bad rap," Jindal says. "Gov. Blanco feels like someone I've known my entire life. She's very approachable and likeable, like a grandmother."
Of course, when Blanco was still in the race, Jindal used his seat in Congress to lambast her administration. It's one of the reasons Jindal is enjoying the enviable position he has today ' because he has been at the epicenter of a constant campaign that geared up when Blanco took office and hasn't halted since. The resulting network consists of countless pages of young volunteers, an Internet presence with an audience unparalleled in Louisiana politics and a seemingly endless supply of willing donors. The voting blocks that traditionally thrive in places like New Orleans have yet to be tested in a real way post-Katrina, and Jindal's network could prove to be intensely formidable even after the 2007 election cycle is over ' or it could be a flash in the proverbial pan.
Firmly at the core of this movement, though, appears to be a generational shift that has co-opted Jindal as its chosen leader, especially as youthful candidates become harder to find. Yet oddly enough, Jindal doesn't exactly fit into the Pearl Jam demographic that his campaign has so skillfully wooed with launches on YouTube, promises of "revolutionary reform" and video-editing contests. He's the runt of the gubernatorial litter but aged beyond his years.
Jindal is also being managed by a set of tight-fisted handlers this time around; he isn't the loose and free 30-something that granted all-access passes to the media in 2003. Today, it's a business. The new Bobby Jindal has been packaged, mass-marketed and slapped on a bumper sticker ' literally.
Jindal is at least 30 minutes late, but no one at Mello Joy Café in Lafayette seems to mind. To help pass the time and market their candidate, a group of young volunteers ' practically everyone on the Jindal payroll is in their 20s or early 30s ' set up a table at the front entrance for supporters to pick up yard signs and choose from a wide selection of bumper stickers. Some are geared toward farmers, veterans and sportsmen, while others have the themes and colors of Louisiana colleges and sports teams. LSU, UL Lafayette and the New Orleans Saints asked Jindal to stop using the likenesses the same week as the Acadiana leg of his statewide bus tour, which he did after supplies ran out. Still, the stickers remain a prime example of Jindal's cross-marketing.
But there is only one group being targeted aggressively by Jindal through his Internet campaign. As a candidate for governor this year, Jindal has done a better job capturing the attention of the 26 to 46 crowd than probably any other Louisiana politician before him, says Ann A. Fishman, president of the New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing Corp. He has approximately 525 digital friends on his MySpace page and another group on Facebook, a similar social networking site. Similarly, there's a horde of pictures online at Flickr and eight videos on YouTube, all edited with punchy music and quick cuts. The Web sites are connected to Jindal's campaign page, which likewise hosts a blog, RSS feeds and online donations. Georges is the only other serious candidate with such a formidable Web presence, but he was months behind Jindal in getting it online.
Jindal's youthful personality plays to the demographic as well, right alongside his impassioned calls for reform ' earlier this summer, a conservative Web site started selling red T-shirts with Jindal's face superimposed over the head of Che Guevara, everybody's favorite South American Marxist.
If any of this seems quirky or whimsical, it's because it's new to Louisiana. Similar movements helped elect Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of California and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura the head of Minnesota. The younger generation is a swing vote that has only recently garnered respect. "There are going to be more people from Generation X voting in federal and state elections this year and next than ever before, especially as more Baby Boomers move or retire," says Fishman, a registered independent. "People who are watching this are smart to do so."
Jindal has an undeniable charm that pulls people in, not unlike other great politicians. He can talk endlessly about his children and family, which is when staffers who've heard the same story countless times check their handhelds for e-mail or fidget with their bags. Nonetheless, Jindal always has an anecdote on deck. Whether he fancies himself a modern bard or uses the long-winded tales to kill time is open to debate, but his stories are usually humorous. "My kids like to watch The Sound of Music on the way to school, but I never get to hear what happens at the end because the ride is so short," he says.
He's also extremely careful and calculated, personality traits that come out during even the most mundane activities, like taking pills. Jindal, who has a background in biology, medicine and public policy, never follows the directions on prescription medicines. "I always just take half the dose," he says. "I'm very cautious."
While an ostensibly large portion of Jindal's generation relates easily to him, it's not so clear that it's reciprocal. His personal reading interests have been confined lately to the life of John Henry Newman, a 19th century religious leader who converted to Roman Catholicism and was later made a cardinal. It's just a bit of light reading for Jindal the wunderkind, who graduated from Baton Rouge High School at the age of 16. His choice of music resides in the classic rock era, or anything by the Beatles, but you won't find him tooling around with an iPod loaded with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Jindal's Ford Taurus doesn't even have a CD player ' technology that has been on the market since the early 1980s. "I guess I'm the kind of guy who waits until the prices drop," Jindal says with a laugh.
Jindal shies away from the question about how he plans to voice the concerns of his generation and rise up as a proper representative. He says a lack of other viable candidates his age in the race is due to "everyone having a different calling," and he refuses to accept any sort of generational label ' a calling card of Gen X, Fishman points out. "This campaign is not a function of age," Jindal says. "I guess I just don't look at this election in those terms."
Fishman adds that the demographic is likely willing to embrace change just for the sake of it, and there are plenty of opportunities with Jindal. If elected, he would become the youngest governor in America, barring an unforeseen candidate in another part of the country, and the only state head of Indian descent. "But this is not about race," Fishman says. "That part of the electorate is largely colorblind. It's about age and something they can relate to. They will get passionate, and they will be voting this time around."
Surrounded by plasma televisions, a marble floor and overstuffed leather chairs, Jindal is soaring down Interstate 10 in his massive tour bus, a red, white and blue monstrosity that says more about his money ($6.3 million in the bank, with no personal loans) than his message. He's reliving the 2003 election for governor for a reporter, calling it his "greatest professional loss." The candidate has been doing this for weeks now, jumping from one small town to another, many without cell phone service, but all packed with people eager to meet the state's top Republican.
The bus eventually comes to a halt in Church Point, the rural town known for its Mardi Gras courirs. Jindal gives nearly the same speech he did in Lafayette, waging a "war on corruption" and promising "new leadership," but also throws in a few lines about gun control for good measure. The crowd, topped off with cowboy hats and anchored by boots made of ostrich, gator and leather, eats it up. As he finishes his speech, someone in the back of the room cranks up Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." on a small radio and Jindal works the crowd.
State Rep. Mickey Guillory, a Democrat from Eunice supporting Jindal, moves to the empty side of the Church Point Bank Annex Building and dishes on the latest poll numbers that place Jindal comfortably in the lead. Like everyone else, he knows the long road Jindal has traveled ' literally and figuratively ' to get here. "He has been running since the last governor's election," he says. "What do you expect?"
The branding of Bobby Jindal started in 1996 when former Gov. Mike Foster plucked his Republican protégé out of virtual obscurity ' Jindal was contemplating a career in law or medicine ' and appointed him secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. Foster had been hearing good things about Jindal from members of Louisiana's congressional delegation who had reviewed a Medicaid proposal written by the young go-getter. He was only 24. Two years later, which is the average amount of time Jindal has spent in various positions since entering public life, he was appointed by members of Congress to be executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare.
After a year of working with the feds, Foster lured Jindal back to Louisiana in 1999 and made him president of the University of Louisiana System. Word of Jindal's work traveled through upper circles again, this time reaching the White House. In 2001, President Bush tapped Jindal to be assistant secretary for planning and evaluation of Health and Human Services.
Jindal never stayed in any one place long enough to make a lasting dent, but the wunderkind label stuck and his stock continued to rise. His honors degree from Brown University and Rhodes Scholar credentials from Oxford University didn't hurt either, but Jindal needed little help in selling himself. He was young, aggressive, seemingly honest and smart ' all the qualities you want on the Louisiana Hayride but rarely find. "I don't look at it as luck," Jindal says. "I was given opportunities by Gov. Foster and other people, but it was up to me to make something of them."
In 2003, Jindal left his 2-year-old presidential appointment to run unsuccessfully for governor. In the following months, bumper stickers began showing up on vehicles declaring, "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Jindal," and die-hard GOP donors weren't shy about who they wanted to run in 2007. Conservative bloggers also multiplied like rabbits and pined for a Jindal-Blanco rematch.
Accidental or not, Jindal had a constant campaign on his hands ' a relatively new concept seen mostly in national politics. It's an exceedingly simple concept that's hard to implement with grace, involving nothing more than a synchronized campaign that never stops, even after a loss. After Blanco defeated him in 2003, Jindal refused to rule out running again for governor and almost immediately launched a winning bid for Congress the following year, pulling up his Baton Rouge roots to run for a Metairie seat. That helped his constant campaign, as having no public office leading up to the next gubernatorial election would have made him a lame duck of sorts, just sitting in the wings waiting for his rematch with Blanco.
Although his re-election to the U.S. House in 2006 was a sure thing, Jindal aggressively raised money leading up to the contest. He was one of the top fund-raisers in his freshman class, raising $2.2 million during the last election cycle. Despite facing only token opposition, Jindal spent an astounding $2.8 million and left only $99,000 in the bank. Most of the money went into a massive media buy that aired commercials in several key communities, many of which were not in Jindal's 1st Congressional District. Jindal says he was taking the race seriously, but a review of federal campaign law reveals Jindal was prohibited from using his impressive war chest in a state race. Since he couldn't take it with him in his quest for the governor's mansion, Jindal went on a spending spree.
It's hard to ignore the network that has been built around the Jindal brand ' but strategy can only take a candidate so far, which is why Jindal has zeroed in on the issue of ethics reform.
Jindal is 30 minutes late again and this time people do care, but only because it's raining and hot and the crowd gathered at the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge consists largely of reporters and political hitmen waiting to hear the candidate's big announcement. Melissa Sellers, Jindal's press secretary and a Texas native, mingles with reporters to pass the time, revealing her candidate will pass out a six-page booklet with 31 ethics proposals he plans to push in a special session in January if elected. "We should have a debriefing conference where Bobby asks y'all questions about his plan," she says with a laugh before disappearing.
Soon after, she's wiping down the entrance of the museum's pavilion with a rubber mop, preparing for Jindal's arrival and ensuring he won't have a Gerald Ford moment. After the caravan travels down Fourth Street, Jindal is escorted from his vehicle under the shield of an umbrella while his campaign manager Timmy Teepell trails behind. Jindal walks right to the microphone and gets to business. There are four camera crews, two photojournalists, four print reporters and a radio correspondent in attendance, all waiting to hear about Jindal's central campaign plank: ethics reform.
Jindal says he wants to require legislators and statewide elected officials to disclose their income, but not tax returns. He also wants to stop lawmakers from becoming lobbyists, stiffen ethics penalties and implement other reforms that have been tried in the past. It's the same old song and dance, and Jindal knows it. But he promises that a mandate from the voters, via his victory on election night, will convince the Legislature to act differently this time.
It's an old adage from Louisiana political consulting: When you don't have anything else to talk about ' or don't want to talk about anything else ' talk about ethics and corruption. But Jindal is deadly serious about his core issue; the poor national rankings have to end somewhere, he says. "This isn't campaign rhetoric," Jindal pleads. "No longer can we accept being the butt of jokes around the country. Those jokes aren't funny anymore."
Operatives from the Louisiana Democratic Party stayed to the shadows during the press conference, but roamed among the reporters at its conclusion and handed out "Bobby Jindal's Real Record on Ethics and Corruption." The single page details five separate votes where Jindal's position could be interpreted as hypocritical. There are two votes in particular where Jindal supported killing ethics investigations related to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Jindal campaign immediately fired off a response, arguing the votes were "ill-disguised partisan maneuvers" by the Democratic leadership that separated liberals from conservatives. Most of the bills also contained other amendments and riders that changed the true color or intent of the legislation, his campaign insists.
While he slyly suggests he was towing the proper, conservative party line on these votes, Jindal doesn't retain the same GOP loyalty and enthusiasm when addressing claims that he's nothing more than a water-carrier for President George Bush. The Boasso campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads that link Jindal and Bush and that depict them as joined at the hip. Jindal doesn't answer the question of whether he would welcome a visit from Bush during the campaign, but he does offer a litany of examples where he stood independent of the White House: He currently supports a veto override if Bush tries to kill a water bill for Louisiana, voted in favor of the Democrat-heavy Farm Bill, endorsed the populist minimum-wage hike and rejected a Bush-backed trade bill early in his congressional career. "I'm happy to agree with my party when they're right," Jindal says. "But party doesn't come first."
Still, Jindal has supported billions in funding for the war in Iraq and has also been known to vote against his own measures to stay in step with the GOP. In June, Jindal attached an amendment to an interior appropriations bill offering an extra $2.5 million for the Gulf of Mexico Program, which was short on money for research. The following day, Jindal joined the Republican House delegation in voting against the bill that contained his amendment. "I was pleased to get the attention for the issue and the funding, but I couldn't support the overall bill because of its pork-barrel spending," Jindal explains.
Jindal has pages of bills and votes to tout his work in Congress, but his constant campaign may have taken a toll on his effectiveness on the Hill. Rankings by Congress.org, supposedly a nonpartisan system, ranked Jindal No. 432 among the House's 439 members. The campaign countered in a written release that the rankings "do not take into account the bills a member passes and therefore is a flawed comprehensive interpretation of effectiveness. Additionally, they said their 2007 rankings were based in part on 'running for higher office' and the 'member's minority party status.'"
Earlier this month, Jindal also missed 22 House votes while he was in Louisiana campaigning, including votes on defense spending and energy legislation. According to Congress' Web site, Jindal has a 95 percent voting record, which his campaign noted in addressing the missed votes.
As for Jindal's other campaign plans for health care, education and economic development, those will be released in coming weeks, Sellers says. For now. But Jindal opponents have plenty of issues they're focusing on.
Along for the ride and interested in everything at the Jambalaya Festival but their father's politics are Jindal's three bright-eyed children, Selia Elizabeth, Shaan Robert and Slade Ryan, all of whom are roughly knee-high or shorter. As Jindal chats with voters in Gonzales, his son pulls on his pants leg looking for attention. Between the handshaking, Jindal gives it up, attempting to spend as much time at the fair with his children as he does with potential supporters. It isn't easy, but Jindal tries. If you want to get to know the real Bobby Jindal, this is a good place to start. He worries about his children being exposed to the political life, revealing insight into a concerned father. "We chose the lifestyle we have, but we really want to give our children a normal upbringing," Jindal says.
And this is where Jindal's stringent faith in a Catholic God comes into play. He lashes out at those who support removing prayer from schools, altering the Pledge of Allegiance and keeping the Christian-based Boy Scouts off of U.S. military bases for their training exercises. "I'm more worried about my children being exposed to Paris Hilton," he says.
During one 25-minute interview at the State Museum, Jindal mentions God no less than eight times. "This is God giving us another chance," he says, referring to the campaign's promise for a fresh start.
According to the D.C. newspaper The Hill, Jindal was seen on Ash Wednesday last year at St. Peter's Catholic Church spending a "great deal of time on his BlackBerry during service and prayer, both reading e-mails and sending e-mails." Jindal responded through his spokesman: "The Congressman was on his BlackBerry to staff asking that meetings be pushed back because the service was running long. He didn't want to leave."
Having been raised Hindu and later converting to Catholicism as a teenager, Jindal has always had a healthy curiosity about religion ' and there's a long paper trail, ranging from college essays to published freelance works that reveal a young man coming of age and exploring different philosophies. Today, Jindal says he still keeps a spiritual journal, but doesn't have as much time to write in it.
His early writings contain one of the crown jewels of his opponents' oppo research: The notorious 1994 article in the New Oxford Review where Jindal reports on an exorcism he experienced first-hand. (E-mails sent to the publisher and editor of the Review requesting interviews about the story were not returned.) "The crucifix had a calming effect on Susan, and her sister was soon brave enough to bring a Bible to her face," Jindal writes. "At first, Susan responded to biblical passages with curses and profanities. Mixed in with her vile attacks were short and desperate pleas for help."
While he wrote vividly that he believed "a demon" would attack him if he began praying, Jindal says today that he wasn't an active participant in the exorcism. "I just reported what I saw," he says.
While the Louisiana Democratic Party has pledged not to exclusively focus on Jindal's religious background and writings, it is spending $1 million on five commercials that assault his congressional record and other details (only the first spot had aired at press time; it depicts Jindal's coronation as governor as premature). Dodging public debates has also sparked criticism of Jindal, and his various no-shows are an extension of just how scripted and guarded the campaign has become. Sellers says that Jindal is just "busy bringing his message of a fresh start to the state" and declined further comment.
Jindal knows he is the chief enemy of everyone else in the race ' that comes with the territory of being the frontrunner. But even his sole Republican challenger, Georges, never misses an opportunity to take a shot. The same thing happened in 2003 when Blanco's machine chipped away at the wiz kid veneer with a set of last-minute attack ads which largely went uncountered. This time around, however, Jindal's campaign is issuing rapid responses ' through e-mail ' addressing most attacks.
Jindal says he's willing to take the lumps and willing to find a way to work with the Legislature to pass the state's first and only comprehensive ethics reform package, but the Louisiana House and Senate have befuddled other highly educated governors before him. And that is the ultimate question: Can Bobby Jindal lead? Of course, Jindal says, although his opponents tag him as untested. For Jindal, it's just another challenge ' possibly the biggest of his life. "I'm in this to win," he says.