Jindal may be the answer to Romney's VP question

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana addresses activists from America's political right at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana addresses activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

(CBS News) People have always told Bobby Jindal to slow down.

The Louisiana governor has a tendency to speak faster than his audience is able to think, so when it came time to deliver the Republican response to President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009, the most important speech of Jindal's political life, he made sure to take it slow.

What resulted was an oratorical disaster.

On live national television, Jindal spoke in a jarring, singsong pitch that replaced his natural rapid-fire monotone. Even longtime friends found it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying, and the reviews were almost uniformly withering.

The man who had been regarded as the future of the Republican Party was suddenly the butt of a national joke.

"The delivery was absolutely awful," Jindal recalled of the notorious speech in a phone interview with RCP from his Baton Rouge office on Wednesday. "But if you look beyond the delivery and actually look at the substance, the whole point of my speech at that point in time was to say that the president is proposing a nearly $800 billion stimulus plan. Our country can't afford this level of spending and borrowing."

And with that, Jindal launched into a blizzard of statistics on the growth of the GDP, a list of negative outcomes of health care reform and, for good measure, a quotation from Napoleon Bonaparte about leadership before finally coming up for air several minutes later.

Members of the Louisiana press corps have learned over the years to ask the governor multiple questions at once, as the only way to avoid spending the better part of a press conference listening to his take on every nuance of a single topic.

Even the briefest conversation with Jindal leaves no doubt that he is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about policy, but less immediately clear is whether he has the right stuff to take the next step in a national political environment in which attention spans are short.

After being widely written off as a potential national figure following that 2009 debacle, Jindal did not attempt to reinvent himself. Instead, he reverted to the policy-obsessed wonkiness and disarmingly polite appeal that come naturally to him.

Surprising the skeptics, Jindal has enjoyed a quiet re-emergence as a popular second-term governor, a highly coveted surrogate for out-of-state Republicans, and a likely name on Mitt Romney's vice-presidential short list.

Thus far, he has not been among the trendiest picks to become Romney's running mate, as was the case four years ago -- before John McCain chose a different young conservative with a reputation as an ethics crusader.

But interviews with several Republican leaders and private conversations with people close to both Romney and Jindal suggest plenty of reasons to believe things might play out differently this time. Though the nation's first Indian-American governor may be flying a bit under the radar in the VP speculation game, his chance of being selected may be as good as any of the more buzzed-about prospects.

"He's certainly on the short list as far as qualified people that could be a complement to Governor Romney," said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who endorsed the now-presumptive nominee in early February and speaks weekly with his advisers. "Governor Romney's hallmark is his ability to turn things around, whether the Olympics here in Utah, or turning around Massachusetts when he was governor, or turning around businesses from failure to success -- that's certainly going to be a big part of his platform, and Bobby's done that as governor of Louisiana."

Though the years since that 2009 speech have been undeniably fruitful for Jindal on the legislative front, it was his leadership during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that helped solidify his reputation in Louisiana and rejuvenated his standing among national Republicans as a party heavyweight.

"Competent" is perhaps the word admirers use most frequently to describe Jindal after "brilliant," and his ability to get things done was a trait he demonstrated throughout the crisis in the Gulf region. For weeks, Jindal was a near-constant figure at the frontlines of the spill, and he hit the right political notes with Republicans by frequently butting heads with the Obama administration, demanding that federal officials be more proactive in their response and taking matters into his own hands when he deemed doing so appropriate.

"The difference between him after the BP oil spill and his Democratic predecessor [Gov. Kathleen Blanco] after Katrina could hardly have been more stark," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour -- whose neighboring state suffered a lesser impact from the most recent environmental disaster in the Gulf -- told RCP. "He was decisive, he was knowledgeable, and he was working hard for his people. There was never any question -- there was no uncertainty."

Barbour, who considered a presidential bid last year and remains one of the most well-connected members of the national Republican establishment, said he had "no idea" whom Romney would pick as his running mate but praised Jindal as "extremely capable" and "genuinely knowledgeable about public policy."

"Plus he's a very nice guy -- pretty family and a good person," Barbour said. "He's just got a tremendous capacity."

Barbour was one of several Republicans interviewed for this story who downplayed apprehensions about Jindal's communications skills -- concerns that continue to simmer as Romney's eventual running mate will be called upon to inject new energy into his campaign.

"I remember people saying in 1992 about Bill Clinton, 'The only thing anybody really knows him for is that terrible speech he made at the Democratic convention in 1988,' " Barbour said. "That didn't turn out to be the only thing they knew about him. The same's true with Bobby."

An All-American Story

Jindal's politically potent recipe of rare intellectual capacity, driving ambition, and disarming humility have won him admirers in Washington since his late-adolescence.

Former Louisiana Congressman Jim McCrery still recalls the day more than 20 years ago when a summer intern who called himself Bobby walked into his office and stood with his hands folded politely in front of him.

McCrery remembered the Brown University undergraduate from the impressive application that he had submitted the previous spring.

Almost all of the congressman's interns were the sons and daughters of major supporters from his northwestern Louisiana district. Jindal, by contrast, was from outside the district in Baton Rouge and lacked politically relevant family ties.

What he did have was a desire to stand out.

"Congressman, I really appreciate the opportunity to be here in Washington and to be one of your interns," McCrery recalled Jindal saying. "For the last few days, I've been in the back of the office doing the filing and sorting and all of those things, and I don't mind doing that, but I was just wondering, while I'm here, if you could give me an assignment."

Impressed with the intern's pluck but skeptical of his earnestness, McCrery replied with a challenging task for the bright-eyed young man -- who had not yet reached the legal drinking age -- to complete during his free hours: "Write a paper on Medicare and how you solve it."

Jindal thanked the congressman and said that he would get right on it. Two weeks later, the eager intern plopped down a fat document on the lawmaker's desk.

"I read it, and it was excellent," McCrery said. "For him to grasp as well as he did the Medicare program in such a short period of time was nothing short of amazing. It was an early indicator of how far this young man might go in life."

As the counterweight to a presidential nominee blessed with wealth and privilege, Jindal's stirring life story as the child of Indian immigrants -- who bestowed upon himself at the age of 4 the all-American name of the youngest son in "The Brady Bunch" -- could be especially appealing.

A Rhodes scholar who helmed the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals -- the state's largest agency -- at the almost absurd age of 25, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal's aptitude and credentials for the nation's second-highest office would be difficult for anyone to question seriously.

Like Jindal, Romney was an academic overachiever who may never have been the life of the party but was the kind of kid that moms hoped their daughters would bring home one day, and the two men are similar in mind-set and temperament.

Though he does not share Romney's decades of business experience, Jindal did have a brief post-collegiate stint working as a business consultant at McKinsey & Company before entering politics, and he shares the Bain Capital co-founder's hyper-analytical approach to governing.

Unlike Romney, who faced likely defeat in Massachusetts had he chosen to run for a second term, Jindal has remained overwhelmingly popular in his home state. In October of last year, he was re-elected with a whopping 66 percent of the vote in Louisiana's nonpartisan blanket primary system.

Asked on Wednesday about the top priority for his second term in Baton Rouge, which began in January, Jindal had a simple answer: education reform. And then he spent the next nine minutes (in an interview scheduled to last 10) describing in detail the legislation he pushed through last month to overhaul teacher tenure, expand access to charter schools, and create a coordinated early childhood education system in his state.

Jindal cited with palpable enthusiasm a slew of statistics about budget cuts, state payrolls, and the reversal in a decades-long brain drain from Louisiana, all under his administration. He also was eager to expand the parameters of his agenda in a manner that evoked a Romney stump speech.

"There's one view that our primary focus should be all about redistributing wealth and that the reason people are suffering is because other people are doing well, and we need to manage the slow decline of this great country and become more like Europe," Jindal said. "There's a second view which says . . . your last name, your Zip code, your race, your gender, your income, should not determine your outcome as an adult in America -- that if you're willing to work hard and get a great education, you should be able to pursue the American dream."

Added Political Value

Though he is only 40, Jindal is already one of the more experienced Republican governors in the country, having been in office for 4 years after serving three years as Louisiana's 1st District representative in the U.S. House.

While several of Romney's potential running mates are known primarily for their work in Washington, the presumptive nominee's core message in each of his two presidential runs suggests that he will be inclined to reinforce his own credentials by picking an outsider with a managerial background as his running mate.

Able to point to a long list of accomplishments in a state with a constitutionally strong governorship, Jindal is among those who most clearly fit the bill.

"A lot of the thrust of the Romney campaign is going to be that on the other side you have flash and dash and big speeches, but we need someone who can run a country," said one Republican consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's not just, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' It's going to be, 'And do you think these guys can make it better over the next four years?' And in order to double down and make sure that answer is 'no,' I think there's a pretty good chance he would pick someone with executive experience."

Jindal may not provide Romney with an edge in a key swing state or a clear boost in a critical demographic, but his Southern twang and firm entrenchment within the culturally conservative base of the Republican Party could boost the ticket among many conservatives who are enthusiastic about beating President Obama but have been lukewarm about their own candidate.

Though Romney's need to firm up his right flank is not considered his most pressing concern among advisers in Boston, gun-owners -- a critical group in key swing states, many of whom are Reagan Democrats and present a particularly appealing pickup opportunity for Romney -- are a potentially decisive voting bloc that Jindal could help activate.

The gun lobby paid close attention to Romney's speech at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in St. Louis last month after years of a rocky relationship with the former Massachusetts governor. (In his failed 1994 Senate run, Romney boasted that he didn't "line up with the NRA," and famously -- and unpersuasively -- said during his first presidential run that his hunting experience amounted to shooting "small varmints.")

Jindal, on the other hand, has been a hero to the gun lobby since 2006, when he sponsored the so-called "Katrina Bill" that barred law enforcement officials from confiscating privately owned guns during federal emergencies and has continued to win accolades from gun-owners as governor.

"I can't think of a governor who's done more to stand up and protect the Second Amendment than Bobby Jindal," Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, told RCP. "I don't pretend to know who Gov. Romney will pick as his running mate, but when it comes to the Second Amendment, Bobby Jindal's a great champion."

Saying the Right Things

With unimpeachably conservative credentials on social issues like abortion, in addition to his well-known bona fides on taxes and fiscal policy, Jindal remains a hot commodity on the national Republican fundraising circuit.

His most recent travels have taken him to political events in Colorado, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and Utah. This week alone, he headlined an Alabama Republican Party function on Thursday and is slated to address the Oklahoma Republican convention on Friday.

Louisiana Democrats, an increasingly endangered species in the state after having dominated its politics for generations, have taken note and argue that Jindal mistook his electoral triumph against token Democratic opposition last year for a sweeping mandate that does not really exist.

"His national ambitions clearly drive the agenda here, and people recognize the price that the state as a whole is paying for it, and I think there's growing dissatisfaction bordering on resentment," said Louisiana Democratic Party communications director Mike Stagg. "This is the longest he's stayed in any job he's had in his adult life. Had it not been for the BP disaster in 2010, he'd already be bored with being governor."

Louisiana's legislature is currently in session, and Jindal is quick to mention that he is spending most of his time in-state.

During the early Republican primary fight, he was a prominent backer of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and did not formally endorse Romney until last month -- after his virtual clinching of the nomination had been firmly established. But that recent history is unlikely to affect his standing as a potential VP pick.

Jindal's advisers say that he truly has been keeping his proverbial head down and focusing on the work in front of him, and members of his inner circle pride themselves on avoiding the constant soft-selling to key Romney officials and the national media that the teams of other vice-presidential prospects sometimes engage in more conspicuously.

Asked "the question" about whether he'd accept the No. 2 slot if it were offered, Jindal's response is notable only for its avoidance of a direct answer.

"I've got the job that I want," he told RCP. "I think it's presumptuous to speculate on all of this. The reality is he will select whoever he thinks will do the best job if called upon to step into the job as president."

It is, of course, the standard answer among potential running mates -- who would almost certainly accept the position but are careful not to come across as overeager.

Still, Jindal has a way of conveying convincingly that he really would rather talk about current policy debates and his accomplishments in Louisiana than speculate about a topic that only a tiny group of people has any real insight into.

"He's not trying to get the job," one close observer of Louisiana politics said. "The people who are highest on the VP list publicly tend to be people who are trying to get the job."

It's precisely the mind-set that could endear him to Romney.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.