Washington — After Gov. Bobby Jindal made his pitch last month to a big-time conservative gathering that also heard from several other prospective Republican presidential candidates, a straw poll taken at the event placed him close to the bottom of the field.
He fares little better in national opinion surveys. And he’s taken repeated hits from critics and the media back home over his red-ink state budget and his frequent absences from Louisiana for what looks a lot like campaign trips.
But Jindal can’t quite be counted out in the quest for the White House in 2016, say veteran political operatives on both sides of the partisan divide. He should have the wherewithal to make his case in the crucial states holding the earliest nominating contests next year — and if he can score a first-place or second-place finish in one of them, all bets are off, they say.
“He’s got to be able to put enough money together to make his case in the first two or three states,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns from Teddy Kennedy to John Edwards, including managing the 2004 run by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But, Trippi said, “That’s in the few millions, not in the tens of millions.
“It’s literally you and 20 people in a farmer’s living room in Iowa,” he said. “It’s not because they saw you on TV.
“If states like Iowa and New Hampshire weren’t first, people like Bobby Jindal wouldn’t have the chance of a snowball in hell.”
Jindal has not declared he is running for president, nor has he acknowledged he is “testing the waters” for a run; either announcement would subject him to stricter limits on fundraising under federal election law. All the other potential Republican candidates fit the same mold except for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, both of whom have said they are actively assessing a candidacy.
But Jindal has behaved much like a candidate, as have a dozen or more other Republicans: making repeated visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, giving speeches across the country on national and international affairs, hiring seasoned campaign staffers and setting up political action committees.
Jindal has said he will make up his mind about a White House run in the next month or two.
Retail politics to start
Traditionally, the Iowa caucuses start the nominating process, followed by the New Hampshire primary. Iowa and New Hampshire, both relatively low in population, are states where face-to-face, retail politics plays a leading role, compared with paid political advertising on TV and radio. In 2012, they were followed on the schedule by South Carolina and Nevada before the first big state with expensive media markets, Florida.
If the pattern of smaller states going first holds — and there is no guarantee that it will, as larger states may try to jump the line — it should favor a candidate like Jindal.
His financial resources, at least initially, may not be as deep as those of prospective candidates such as Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida whose father and brother served as president; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative hero for taking on public-sector unions who is currently atop the polls with Bush; U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, a libertarian whose father ran for president and built a vast network of support; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with his easy access to wealthy donors in neighboring New York; U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, a tea party favorite from a big state; or even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, religious-right favorites who have run for president before.
Jindal, who can benefit from allied political committees and organizations already in place, should have enough cash to compete in the early rounds, Trippi said. He has not had to report any fundraising yet this year because the filing deadline has not been reached. The only federal PAC of his that was active in 2014 reported raising $275,000 that year.
Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s former chief of staff in Baton Rouge and a key political consultant to him, said, “Gov. Jindal has always been a very successful fundraiser,” citing Jindal’s ability to attract donations to his winning campaigns for Congress and governor and as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
The focus that the news media put on presidential candidates also makes spending on political advertising less important — and reporters aren’t the only ones paying attention, Teepell said.
“Voters, especially in the early states, spend a lot of time seeking and consuming information about the race,” he said. “They’re going to kick the tires. They’re going to listen. Everyone is going to have a chance to be heard.”
Hard to break out
The other half of that equation is that the candidate must have something to say that separates him or her from the pack, said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican consultant who was national director of President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign and also managed Huckabee’s 2008 White House run. And this year especially, that won’t be easy, he said.
“In a very crowded field, with a multitude of candidates, it’s harder to break out,” Rollins said. “You’ve got a very tough field, a very crowded field, a very experienced field.”
Teepell called Jindal “a full-spectrum conservative” who covers “the three legs of the Republican stool”: On economic policy, he favors smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation to spur growth; on social issues, he supports the sanctity of life and religious liberty; and on foreign policy, he backs a strong military and American leadership around the world.
Jindal’s rhetoric ranks with the harshest of any of the Republican candidates, whether he is condemning Democratic President Barack Obama as unfit to serve as commander-in-chief, rushing to the defense of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani said Obama does not love his country, calling on Republicans in Congress to “grow a spine” in challenging the president or raising the specter of a Muslim takeover of the United States while promoting death as the primary response to Islamic radicalism.
He has assiduously courted the religious right, meeting with fundamentalist pastors, touting his evangelical Catholic faith and proclaiming ultimate victory for “our God” at a Baton Rouge prayer rally.
“There are moments in history where some candidates have a message that cuts through and gives them a critical mass,” said Craig Varoga, a Democratic operative in Washington and former New Orleans resident who managed the short-lived campaign of another long-shot candidate, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, in the 2008 election cycle.
“For a lower-tier candidate to emerge, they have to have an issue that differentiates them from an upper-tier candidate,” Varoga said. “If everybody is the same, it comes down to money and organization and personality.”
Jindal “has to somehow be that one that surprises, that comes out of this pack,” Trippi said. “The message somehow has to stick out. ... I don’t think there’s a good sense of what the Bobby Jindal narrative or message is.”
Record a plus?
One factor that could help define Jindal is his record as governor. Teepell sees that as a plus: Jindal has demonstrated his commitment to smaller government. But the recent budget crisis and his declining popularity ratings in Louisiana could send a different signal.
Jindal also stands out from most of the Republican field in another way: The son of immigrants from India, he is the only prospective Republican candidate who is not white, except for Carson, an African-American. Jindal himself consistently downplays his ethnicity, and Rollins said it’s not a factor politically. Charlie Cook, a Shreveport native who produces the national Cook Political Report in Washington, said, “Being a person of color in a lily-white party is not an asset.”
Cook, who is fond of athletic metaphors, likened the Republican presidential contest to the NCAA basketball tournament, with its regional brackets each producing a Final Four contender. The establishment bracket, Cook said, includes Bush, Christie, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and probably U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida. The “secular conservatives” — further to the right than the establishment types but not culture warriors — include Graham, Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The tea party group consists of Carson, Paul and Cruz. And the social/cultural/evangelical bracket takes in Jindal, Huckabee and Santorum.
That puts Jindal up against two candidates who have won the Iowa caucuses previously and are much more familiar to voters than he is. The other brackets are just as tough, or tougher, Cook said.
For any candidate to win, he said, “There has to be a path. There has to be a logical route.”
If Jindal leaps far up the leader board in an early state, he’ll attract the money and support he needs for a sustained run at the nomination, Trippi said.
“The trouble is that if you don’t surprise in those early states, that’s it,” he said. “Someone like Jindal will not get a second chance.”
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