Meet Bobby Jindal, self-styled hero of the Christian right.
The Louisiana governor, who announced Wednesday he’s running for president, was once seen as a rising national star with deep, nuanced thoughts about health care, education and budget issues, who in 2009 gave the party’s nationally televised response to President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.
Jindal began his bid for the Republican presidential nomination with a “special announcement.”
“My name is Bobby Jindal, and I am running for president of the United States of America. There were three people I think you would agree my wife, Supriya, and I had to tell first,” he said.
Jindal has been crafting an image aimed at positioning him as the evangelical favorite.
Earlier this year, he was the featured guest at what was billed at a “global prayer gathering” in Baton Rouge, where he urged the thousands in attendance to lead a spiritual revival. The super PAC promoting his candidacy is “Believe Again.”
Last week, Jindal spent 10 minutes of his 18-minute speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition tracing the evolution of his faith from the time he was a child. Jindal was raised in a Hindu family and converted to Catholicism in college.
Longtime Jindal associates explain he’s always had strong beliefs, and the national electorate and media are just starting to notice.
“His faith has always been a very big part of who he is,” said Brad Todd, who’s been a Jindal media consultant and is now an adviser to Believe Again.
Something political is also at work here, because Jindal is far down in polling in the key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Evangelicals are a powerful bloc in Iowa, and a strong showing there could mean momentum for the South Carolina primary and the bloc of Southern primaries likely to follow.
Jindal faces at least two big obstacles. One is that early-state voters are already being peppered with candidate pitches, and they tend to base their votes on a wide variety of issues and impressions.
“People want to know what you believe in, but you also don’t want to become one dimensional,” said Will Rogers, chairman of the Polk County, Iowa, Republican Party.
I’m running for President of the United States of America. Join me: http://t.co/MmqB4kxpUq— Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal) June 24, 2015
Jindal, 44, also faces stiff competition for the evangelical vote. Two Christian right favorites with strong constituencies are running – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucus, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012. Also in the mix is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose supporters have been laying groundwork for his candidacy for more than a year, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be this way for Jindal. “He did come out of the gate as the Golden Boy of Louisiana politics,” recalled Jeremy Alford, publisher of LaPolitics.com., a website that follows state politics.
Jindal rocketed to national stardom soon after being elected governor in 2007. He was the young, intelligent, minority governor of a Deep South state, with strong backing from suburban and business Republicans.
His awkward 2009 response to Obama’s speech was widely derided as a disaster, but Jindal continued to thrive in the national spotlight. After the party lost the White House in 2012, he ruffled the regulars at the party’s winter meeting when he told them, “It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”
“We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments,” he said. “I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”
Fast-forward to this year. Forty-five minutes before Obama’s State of the Union address, Jindal tweeted, “I’ll save you 45 mins. Obama will decry Republicans, beat up on private business and argue for more ‘free stuff.’ Your (sic) welcome.” A few days later, he blasted Republicans unwilling to hold up funding for the Homeland Security Department so they could force Obama to dilute or cancel his directives on immigration.
“It’s time for our Republican leaders in Congress to grow a spine,” Jindal told the Conservative Political Action Conference. Attendees weren’t buying it; he finished 12th in its straw poll with 0.9 percent of the vote.
At home, Jindal reeled. “He got support because people thought he’d be a reformer, but they’ve seen mismanagement of state finances every year,” said Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans Survey Center. A statewide poll by another organization last month found his approval rating at 31.8 percent.
Jindal loyalists are convinced he has a chance to do well as a presidential candidate. While they acknowledge he faced a huge budget shortfall this year, they note he did find ways to balance the budget. And remember, said Todd, Jindal came out of nowhere in his first gubernatorial run in 2003 and nearly won.
Jindal, Todd says, knows how to deal with voters. “A lot of Republican candidates are afraid to talk about social issues,” Todd said. “They’re scared. Jindal has never had much fear.”