By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Last weekend, 18 days after Barack Obama decisively defeated their candidate for president, a mostly Republican crowd of self-described conservatives received their first introduction to someone many prominent members of the GOP think could be the party's own version of Obama.
Like the president-elect, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is young (37), accomplished (a Rhodes scholar) and, as the son of Indian immigrants, someone familiar with breaking racial and cultural barriers. He came to Iowa to deliver a pair of speeches, and his mere presence ignited talk that the 2012 presidential campaign has begun here, if coyly. Already, a fierce fight is looming between him and other Republicans -- former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who arrived in Iowa a couple of days before him, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is said to be coming at some point -- for the hearts of social conservatives.
"The Republicans really have no choice except to look at some people more youthful if they want to have a better chance of winning," said Betty E. Johnson, an independent and the wife of a Cedar Rapids pastor, who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but who went for Obama over 72-year-old John McCain. "I liked Obama's energy and hope. I don't know, but maybe a younger person would give Republicans a feeling of more energy, openness."
Jindal insists he is ignoring all the speculation. In Cedar Rapids, at a breakfast event devoted to addressing this beleaguered city's efforts to rebound from its disastrous flood last summer, he avoided any reference to 2012, staying focused on explaining Louisiana's methods for coping with hurricane floods in emergencies on his watch.
Meanwhile, others around the country were talking him up. No less an aspiring kingmaker than Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist of McCain's failed presidential bid, sees Jindal as the Republican Party's destiny. "The question is not whether he'll be president, but when he'll be president, because he will be elected someday." The anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist believes, too, that Jindal is a certainty to occupy the White House, and conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh has described him as "the next Ronald Reagan."
Jindal is, above all else, a political meteor, sharing Obama's precocious skills for reaching the firmament in a hurry. It was just four years ago, after losing a gubernatorial election, that he won election to Congress, and only this year that he became Louisiana's governor, the first nonwhite to hold the office since Reconstruction. And now, 10 months into his first term, the talk of a presidential bid is getting louder among his boosters.
Youth, Norquist notes, has never been at a greater premium for Republicans in search of a new path. And the generally positive reaction to Jindal's handling of Louisiana's mass evacuation in August before Hurricane Gustav, and his response in the storm's aftermath, bolstered the image of the new governor's vigor.
"If anything, McCain's candidacy suggests that age is not always a positive -- and sometimes is a negative," Norquist says. "As Republicans, you have a real problem now with younger voters and immigrants. If you were going to central casting for a candidate to deal with all that, who do you have? Jindal. He is young, and he looks young. . . . He's a great communicator. And his record is that he's sharp and quick with policy."
Jindal supporters regularly evoke the Reagan parallel, fueled by a confidence that their hero's brand of social and fiscal conservatism, coupled with his sunny folksiness on the stump, can rekindle the Reagan flame. But all the comparisons end there. In 1981, Reagan entered the presidency at age 69, in the model of a leader the party traditionally favored then, older and seasoned. Just an elementary school kid when Reagan stepped into the Oval Office, Jindal is boyish-looking and six years younger than John F. Kennedy was when he became the nation's youngest elected president.
Jindal is his own invention, in the mold of an Obama. Born in Louisiana as Piyush Jindal to highly educated immigrants from India, he decided as a young child to nickname himself "Bobby," after his favorite character on the TV show "The Brady Bunch." Raised as a Hindu, he converted to Catholicism while in college and later wrote a lengthy, intimate story that provided a window on his religious evolution, in a manner that fairly calls to mind Obama's books about his own grappling with issues of self-identity. Success at Brown University and later at Oxford University during his Rhodes years led to high-profile attention in the power corridors of Louisiana and Washington.
The Louisiana governor at the time, Murphy J. "Mike" Foster Jr., turned to a 25-year-old Jindal to shore up Louisiana's Medicaid program, which had fallen badly into debt. By the time Jindal finished, he had shut down some state hospitals and had the program running a surplus. "He had to close a hospital in my district, but he didn't hesitate doing what he had to do," remembers former Louisiana state senator Tony Perkins, now the leader of the Family Research Council. "He always knows what he wants to get done."
The record is still evolving, like the rest of him. But social conservatives like what they have heard about the public and private Jindal: his steadfast opposition to abortion without exceptions; his disapproval of embryonic stem cell research; his and his wife Supriya's decision in 1997 to enter into a Louisiana covenant marriage that prohibits no-fault divorce in the state; and his decision in June to sign into law the Louisiana Science Education Act, a bill heartily supported by creationists that permits public school teachers to educate students about both the theory of "scientific design" and criticisms of Darwinian evolutionary concepts.
"Y'all are great to come," Jindal said to a pack of robust, gray-haired men who towered over his thin, 5-foot-8 frame. A couple of men dared to say they hoped he would be back campaigning in Iowa soon, to which he simply responded with a tight-lipped smile. Away from the rostrum, in response to a question, he declared he had only one political race on his mind. "I'm running for reelection to be governor of Louisiana in 2011," he said. "I'm not running for any other office."
You're in Iowa, someone said.
"I've spoken to the governor of Iowa and the Cedar Rapids group about what we can do with the flood victims because we've had to deal with these things, and they've been committed to helping our people when they were hurt by floods," he responded. "I want to be the best governor I can be for the people of Louisiana. Look, I think the American people are tired of campaigns and politics. We need to get behind our new president and our new Congress, support them, and stop being Democrats and Republicans. We need to work together to make sure our government is successful."
As he took the lectern for his speech, a former Iowa state representative, 72-year-old Rosemary Thomson and her husband, Jim, leaned forward and listened closely, a pair of lifelong Republicans who had delayed a trip to Illinois just to check out Jindal. They cautioned that they would not be making up their minds about him this morning, wanting a long look in the next few years at the entire Republican field. "But you read everything about him, and you know he's very smart," said Thomson, who had never heard him speak before. "It's an impressive résumé. Rhodes scholar. . . . He's done so much, and he's so young, a real up-and-comer."
Jindal's speech impressed them. While the crowd pushed away their eggs to study him, he alluded to the light dusting of snow to which Cedar Rapids had awakened. "Where I come from, we call that a blizzard," he said, eliciting chuckles from the Thomsons.
He segued quickly to the floods that had damaged their states and what he said he had learned from Louisiana's hurricanes. Government's swift reaction "matters more than red tape," he said. "Always side with the people. You can write an apology to the bureaucrats later."
This won him appreciative laughs, which grew into loud applause as he told about a rough-talking, no-nonsense Louisiana sheriff who had exhibited even less patience with bureaucrats. "You don't succeed by waiting for FEMA to tell you what to do," he declared. "You tell them what you need."
It was a speech devoted in large part to a skewering of federal bureaucracies, which was red meat for the breakfast attendees who showed their appreciation for his praise of the private sector and of faith-based organizations that he said had aided Louisiana. "If you ever get cynical, come down to Louisiana," he said, and then lauded those gathered for their "generous response" during his state's crises. "Know this: We will rebuild. Our people are strong and resilient. Thank y'all very much."
The Thomsons pressed forward to shake his hand and have their picture taken alongside him. "He's a great speaker," whispered Rosemary Thomson. "He's enthusiastic. He has a background of success . . . with those hurricanes, where others failed. But it's too early to support anyone. There's a long ways to go."
She walked back to Jindal, because something had just occurred to her. "So the campaign has begun, huh?" she affably said to him. "2012 has begun."
He smiled. "Oh, no, no, not yet," he replied. No, not yet.