Jindal: Whiz kid makes another bid for governor

One in a series of profiles of the candidates in the Oct. 20 governor's race.

Special to the Herald-Guide
October 11, 2007 at 10:48 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 


Associated Press Writer

VIDALIA, La. (AP) _ In a tiny, jam-packed room, Bobby Jindal shook hands, slapped a few backs and launched into his standard stump speech, pledging to rid the state of corruption, incompetence and out-of-control spending.

He has given the speech dozens of times, but the 75 people in the welcome center overlooking the Mississippi River in rural Concordia Parish were thrilled he was giving it in their small town.

For months, the Republican congressman and candidate for governor has repeated the campaign stop in communities from Louisiana's southern rice fields to the cotton fields in the north and as many places as he could squeeze in between. He's touched towns and villages that often don't see their legislative candidates, let alone ones who want to be governor.

And he's constructed a solid core of voters, one community at a time.

Jindal, 36, is still the speed-talking, Oxford-educated whiz kid who lost the governor's race to Democrat Kathleen Blanco four years ago. He still rattles off statistics and lists of campaign promises, positioning himself as the pro-gun, religious conservative.

But he's also now a cowboy boot-wearing, storytelling congressman who touts his experience in Congress as a selling point to show he's not a newbie too young to lead the state. He's also logged thousands of miles since his last bid for the Governor's Mansion, traveling each nook and cranny of Louisiana trawling for votes.

Mayor Hyram Copeland said Jindal visited Vidalia at least five times in the past few months. Concordia Parish went for Blanco last time. “We're a small community. It's highly unusual to have a candidate come here that much,” Copeland said. “He has more support than he's had in the past. He's been here several times. He's bringing the message to the people.”

Jindal has banked a formidable lead as he heads into the final month of campaigning before the Oct. 20 primary election. He faces 12 opponents. Many political analysts predict an outright Jindal win in the primary, though the candidate said he expects to compete in the Nov. 17 runoff.

“There is this air of it's sort of a done deal, that basically it's Jindal's for the taking,” said Glenn Antizzo, a political scientist at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.

Democrats and Jindal's major opponents, state Sen. Walter Boasso and Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, say he's acting like he expects a coronation. They accuse him of dodging events that don't simply involve a crowd of his supporters, so Jindal's agreed to three face-to-face debates.

“He's applying for a job. He needs to interview for it,” said Anthony “Tony G” Gentile, an independent from Mandeville who is one of the lesser-known candidates for governor.

Jindal has been trickling out campaign platforms by topic, officially kicking off his campaign with a focus on ethics. He's pushing for financial disclosure from lawmakers of their sources of income and tougher disclosure from lobbyists, and he says if elected, his first special session will center on ethics reform. Corruption and incompetence are mainstays in his speeches, though he never talks of who he considers corrupt or who he's accusing of incompetence.

“There may be a history of corruption in our state, but it's not going to be a part of our future,'' he recently told an audience in Greenwell Springs, near Baton Rouge.

A Jindal win would be historic. The son of Indian immigrants, he would be the first nonwhite governor in the state since Reconstruction.

Though his family raised him a Hindu, Jindal converted to Catholicism as a teen in a struggle with his parents detailed in religious writings for Catholic publications that discuss everything from an exorcism he claims to have watched as a college student to his strong beliefs in Catholicism as the true faith.

Democrat Party officials have said the writings show an intolerance toward other religious faiths _ a criticism Jindal denies, saying Democrats are attacking his religious beliefs.

Religion is a regular theme as Jindal talks to voters. He talks of his pride in church groups' help after the 2005 hurricanes and he complains about federal judges' rulings that limit prayer in schools _ points that generate enthusiastic applause.

Along the campaign trail, Jindal has gathered wide support across party lines, getting endorsements from Republican and Democratic elected officials around the state. His campaign coffers are bulging with donations.

However, he also knows a front-runner can lose, an experience learned in his loss to Blanco after leading in the polls four years ago.

Despite a widespread perception that he's essentially been running for governor since that loss, Jindal says he didn't decide to run again for the state's top job until back-to-back hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated coastal Louisiana. He tells audiences of supporters the hurricanes gave the state a second chance.

``I think in my lifetime, if we don't make the changes now, we're not going to get the same chance again. It's not just because the nation's paying attention to us. It's not just because of the billion dollars, tens of billions of dollars approved to help this state. It's also there's a sense of urgency among the population,'' Jindal said on his campaign bus, traveling from Iota to Erath in the heart of Cajun country.

Jindal bounced back quickly from his loss to Blanco, moving to the New Orleans suburb of Kenner from Baton Rouge and easily winning a vacant congressional seat in the heavily Republican district in 2004. Two years later, he was re-elected with 88 percent of the vote.

Though popular in his district, his clout in the U.S. House is ranked 432nd out of 435 members, according to power rankings of the nonpartisan Congress.org.

His election to Congress is another in a string of impressive jobs on Jindal's resume. Republican former Gov. Mike Foster tapped Jindal to be the state's health care secretary at the age of 24 in 1996. He worked as president of the University of Louisiana System. He served as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Bush.

No job lasted longer than two or three years, leading to criticism that Jindal's too jumpy, not willing to stick around long enough to provide real leadership or change. However, Jindal said he will serve his full term as governor if elected.

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