ABOVE SOUTH CAROLINA — Bobby Jindal was on a donor’s private plane, jetting between two cities in South Carolina. He’d been to this state five times since 2013. But, in that time, he had fallen so low in the polls here that he wasn’t in them anymore. South Carolina survey-takers had stopped asking about him.
So Jindal came back, to try harder.
First, he attacked Democrats. “The left . . . doesn’t trust the American people to lead our lives,” he told conservatives in West Columbia. Then he attacked other Republicans: “They need a spine,” Jindal told TV cameras.
Then, after a day of throwing political bombs, he flew to Greenville and bemoaned the lack of Christian love and charity in American life. “We’re at a moment when we need spiritual revival again,” Jindal told a group of pastors.
Today, the frenetic Jindal is one of the great mysteries of the early 2016 campaign: the rising star who has stalled.
Not long ago, the Louisiana governor was the Republican candidate of the future — the son of immigrants and also a proud product of the Deep South. He is a devout Catholic, an experienced governor and — in a political sphere dominated by shallow cable-television shouters — a data-driven Rhodes scholar.
But now, Jindal sits at about 2 percent in national Republican polls. He has become such an afterthought that he recently resorted to asking himself a “gotcha” question. The media hadn’t bothered, and he wanted to stay in the conversation.
For the first time in a life of wild successes, Jindal looks lost. He has applied his trademark work ethic to the task of becoming a better politician, but he has instead wound up looking as if he’s trying to be every politician at once. A hawk. A wonk. A tea party rebel. A Christian revivalist. A first-generation American. A Bubba.
In an interview, Jindal rejected the idea that he is failing at his highest ambition. After all, he said, he isn’t officially running for president yet.
“We don’t have a campaign strategy,” Jindal said on the plane. “So it would be too early to change it.”
On his latest trip to South Carolina, it appeared that Jindal’s unofficial campaign was not going the way he had hoped.
After Jindal spoke in Greenville, for instance, the Rev. Mitch Brooks of Second Baptist Church in Belton took the microphone to say he hoped Christians would unite behind a Christian in 2016. “I’d be delighted if it was behind Governor Jindal!” Brooks said.
But, Brooks said, it didn’t have to be Jindal.
“There are a couple of others that I’d be delighted if it was behind them,” he said.
Jindal’s spectacular rise through American politics began in the mid-1990s, when he was a 24-year-old consultant at McKinsey & Co. in Washington. He had a spot waiting at Harvard Medical School. But then . . .
“I got a call one day from Bobby Jindal,” said then-Rep. Jim
McCrery said Jindal, a former intern in his office, asked if he knew the front-runner in that year’s Louisiana governor’s race.
“I was wondering if you would give him a call and ask him to consider appointing me secretary” of the Health Department, McCrery remembered him saying. “I kind of chuckled. To myself. Not out loud. And took a breath. And I said, ‘Well, Bobby, just in case [he] has somebody else in mind for secretary, would you consider an assistant secretary position?’ ”
No, Jindal would not.
“He said, ‘I don’t think I could implement the changes that are necessary unless I’m head of the department,’ ” McCrery said.
It worked. Jindal got the job. He also remembers the story differently. As he tells it, the state sought him out, not the other way around.
As secretary, Jindal cut spending, attacked Medicaid fraud, and impressed lawmakers and activists alike. After two years, he was gone. He went to Washington and became a health-policy official in the George W. Bush administration.
Then, another phone call. This one from Jindal to Haley Barbour.
“Haley Barbour called me,” said Curt Anderson, a political consultant for Republicans. It was about 2002, when Barbour was the former head of the Republican National Committee and before he became governor of Mississippi. “And [Barbour] said, ‘There’s this guy, he’s wicked smart, he’s talking about maybe running for governor of Louisiana, and I don’t know if he could win or not, but would you mind if I gave him your number?’ ”
Sure, Anderson said, and he went to Jindal’s office without even reading his bio. The door opened and out came the skinny son of Indian immigrants. (Jindal’s given name is Piyush, but he renamed himself at age 4 after the youngest son on television’s “The Brady Bunch.”)
“I’m like, okay, this is his assistant. He’s like, ‘Hi, I’m Bobby Jindal,’ ” Anderson recalled. “I’m like: What. In. The. Hell. My immediate thought is, ‘Haley’s such a joker.’ ”
Jindal convinced Anderson that he was no joke. Jindal ran for governor, selling himself as a man who could make Louisiana politics boring — instead of what it had been, essentially a vaudeville act with its own police force and hospitals.
Maybe Louisiana was ready for a management consultant.
“You can’t be all things to all people,” Jindal said at one gubernatorial debate, proudly citing a lesson from his McKinsey experience in a discussion about why big government doesn’t work. “Companies that fail, states that fail, are those states, those companies, that try to do everything instead of trying to do one thing particularly well.”
Louisiana was not ready.
Jindal lost a close race to a Democrat. Afterward, Jindal needed to ask for another powerful man’s support.
“It wasn’t a hard call” to give him what he wanted, said Robert Livingston (R-La.), a former congressman who had once employed Jindal as an intern. Jindal told Livingston that he was thinking of moving into Livingston’s old district outside New Orleans and running for the empty seat.
But there was a problem. Another Republican — state lawmaker Steve Scalise — was also interested.
Livingston helped take care of that problem without being asked. “I can’t say he was excited about stepping aside,” Livingston said of Scalise.
With the field clear, Jindal cruised to victory. In 2007, Jindal ran for governor again. This time, he won. “We’ve laughed at our politicians and the ones that have gone to jail and made the funny jokes,” Jindal said then. “But it’s not funny anymore.”
Eight years later, many in Louisiana say that Jindal has allowed the job he wants — the presidency — to overshadow the job he has.
In the beginning of Jindal’s tenure, for instance, he was the hands-on wonk he had promised to be. He pushed the legislature to overhaul Louisiana’s ethics laws, privatize its Depression-era system of state charity hospitals, and shrink taxes and the state budget.
Jindal also placed an enormous value on presence. After a chicken plant closed, or a hurricane hit, Jindal wanted to be there.
“The state police say, ‘Well, sir, the winds are above 110 miles an hour. It’s not safe for you to drive there,’ ” recalled Timmy Teepell, the governor’s former chief of staff. He was talking about a moment at the height of Hurricane Gustav, when power went out at an arena holding evacuees. Jindal went.
“I’ll have to look at the Constitution,” Teepell recalled him saying. “But I don’t think you get to tell me what to do.”
But now, officials in Louisiana say that the detail-oriented Jindal has farmed out the details of a major crisis — a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall — to activists in Washington.
“ ‘ATR says that’s a tax increase.’ Or, ‘ATR says that might not be a tax increase if you do blah, blah, blah,’ ” said state Rep. Jay Morris (R), a fiscal conservative, describing Jindal’s staffers’ responses to suggestions of ways to raise money. ATR stands for Americans for Tax Reform, the group run by anti-tax guru Grover Norquist.
“He feels that’s the best way to run for national office. It’s just not a good way to run Louisiana,” Morris said. “I call it insane.”
Last year, Jindal spent about 165 days — 45 percent of the year — outside of Louisiana, according to the Advocate newspaper.
That included four trips to New Hampshire and five trips to Iowa.
“I’ve met with him personally, in fairness, probably two to three times over the last several years,” said Jay Dardenne (R), Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, who is elected separately from Jindal. “No more than that.”
On that plane over South Carolina, Jindal was asked: Would Louisiana be running better if he was there more of the time?
“I think the results speak for themselves,” Jindal said.
In West Columbia, Jindal told a ballroom half-full of Republican activists that the Republicans in Congress had deeply disappointed him.
“I mean, this election wasn’t about getting a nicer office for Senator [Mitch] McConnell,” Jindal said, singling out the new Republican majority leader. He said congressional Republicans had failed to deliver on promises of a replacement for President Obama’s health-care law and failed to stop the president’s moves on immigration. “This was about being a conservative party. For once, I’d like to see the folks go to D.C. and govern the way they campaigned.”
This is the newest Bobby Jindal, the rebel insurgent.
He failed to win over his party by following its old rules — climb the ladder, run a state, impress Norquist. Now, he is trying out a post-tea party playbook for gaining power.
Get on TV. Impress Norquist. And call any Republican in Washington who has power a dastardly sellout.
Jindal “is throwing rhetorical bombs to get noticed. He is getting noticed but not in a way that helps him with large donors,” Erick Erickson, the influential conservative, wrote after seeing Jindal attack the congressional GOP at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
“I think Jindal has a path forward,” Erickson wrote. “But the one he has chosen degrades all his accomplishments and leaves him looking less than the bright light he is.”
The original Jindal — the Bible-thumping, number-crunching, first-generation American — seemed like enough to impress national Republicans. “The question is not whether he’ll be president,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said in 2008, “but when he’ll be president.”
But then came Jindal’s infamous 2009 televised response to Obama’s first speech to Congress.
In that response, Jindal emphasized how his parents’ journey had given him an immigrant’s optimism about America. It’s a great story. Jindal botched it.
“My own parents came to THIS country from a DISTANT land,” he said, in the overly earnest voice of a man talking to a circle of toddlers. “My dad . . . would tell me, BOBBY, AMERICANS can do ANYTHING. I still believe that to THIS day.”
The speech was so bad it seemed to taint its message. Since then, Jindal’s identity as a politician has never been as simple. At times, for instance, he has cast himself as a proud good old boy, sneering back at the coastal elites.
“He characterized folks like us — like you and me — as unsophisticated ingrates who were, and I quote, bitterly clinging to our guns and religion,” Jindal said, talking about Obama at the CPAC conference in 2012. “He was exactly right about us. In Louisiana and all across America, we love us some guns and religion.”
Also, Jindal has recently jumped aggressively into foreign affairs — not natural territory for the governor. This week, for instance, Jindal trumpeted the fact that he had “signed on” to a letter that 47 Republican senators had sent to the Iranian government seeking to undermine a potential deal to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Then, at last, a slight stroke of good luck.
Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the letter — and maybe, implicitly, Jindal — on Twitter. “No one considering running for commander-in-chief should be signing on,” she wrote.
Jindal seized the moment. “@HillaryClinton No one who allows Iran to become a nuclear power should consider running,” he tweeted back.
He was in the conversation. “News Alert: Bobby Jindal and Hillary Clinton tussle on Twitter,” Jindal’s political advisers wrote in a news release.
To Jindal’s advisers, there is a method in all this activity: Jindal is not searching for a political identity. He is showing his range.
Their idea is that other GOP candidates will confine themselves to a single political “lane” — the evangelical candidate, the reformist governor, the bomb-throwing outsider, the policy wonk. But Jindal will be able to fill several at once.
“The last two winners of Iowa were Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. And both of them did the job of being the social conservative and nothing else,” said Anderson, who is still one of Jindal’s top advisers. Santorum is a former Pennsylvania senator, Huckabee the former governor of Arkansas. “They didn’t have another gear they can go to. And that’s not Bobby Jindal.”
But in this campaign, it carries an obvious risk.
Most of Jindal’s lanes have somebody in them.
At this year’s CPAC conference, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey also talked about being reformist governors. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) played the rebel outsider. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) ran in the lane Jindal started out in, talking about his parents’ immigrant experience.
In the conference’s unofficial straw poll, all of them beat Jindal. He came in 12th, four spots behind Donald Trump, with 0.9 percent of the vote.
In 2009, he had come in second.
“You rattle off the eight or nine people you see as serious contenders. But then somebody says, ‘What about Bobby Jindal?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, right,’ ” said Ed Rollins, the longtime GOP strategist. “He ought to be in there.”
Jindal’s strategists say that if he gets into the race, Jindal will consider his back-of-the-pack status liberating, not depressing.
“He’s got absolutely nothing to lose,” said Teepell, the former chief of staff who is now a political adviser to Jindal. “And what could be more fun than that?”
Right now, it doesn’t seem like much fun. Throughout Jindal’s life, whenever he set a goal, he could always convince other people that he deserved it. But now, Jindal’s audience is slipping further out of range.
The best sign of that came last month, when former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) said he didn’t believe that Obama loves America. The news media began asking other top candidates whether they agreed.
The only person who asked Jindal about it was . . . Jindal.
“If you are looking for someone to condemn the Mayor, look elsewhere,” Jindal said, in an official gubernatorial news release, titled “Gov. Jindal refuses to Condemn Mayor Giuliani.”
Later, an aide to Jindal confirmed that the governor hadn’t received any media queries before he made the statement.
Robert Costa, Peyton Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.