Stratham, N.H. — On a Saturday afternoon edging toward Louisiana hot, Gov. Bobby Jindal climbed onto a farm trailer in front of a weathered barn and spoke about party unity and the American dream to a couple hundred Republicans scattered across the grass by a cornfield.
It was a short speech — fewer than 10 minutes — and Jindal spent five times as long chatting with men and women in twos and threes afterward, talking about politics, the weather and trips to Las Vegas, and grinning broadly for cell-phone cameras.
This is presidential campaigning, New Hampshire style.
This was no crowd of yokels — the Scamman farm, hosting the Seacoast Republican Women’s ChiliFest for the 15th consecutive year, is just down the road from strip malls plastered with familiar national brand names, and New Hampshire is more densely populated than most states — but they like their politics up close and personal.
New Hampshire is a required stop on the path to a presidential nomination, carrying outsized influence because its presidential primary comes first in the nation. In 2016, it’s scheduled for Jan. 26; eight days after the Iowa caucuses set the nomination machinery in motion.
Although Jindal has said he will wait until 2015 to decide on a run for the White House, he’s certainly playing the part. This visit, not his first to the state, included stops by a state-election campaign office in Nashua and a Republican picnic in Dover before the farm appearance. And he returned to Nashua to give a speech at a gala dinner Saturday night. He has also made repeated trips to Iowa in the past year.
At Stratham, Jindal, 43, touched on his own narrative as the child of immigrants from India. And while he said the left is out to destroy America’s greatness, his father taught Jindal to give thanks to God for his American birthright.
“This lesson is about making sure our children and grandchildren can get on their knees and thank the Lord that they were born in the best country on earth,” he said.
Jindal made a favorable impression on Ryan Hagan, 28, a business-event producer from Bedford. “He’s a really passionate American,” Hagan said.
Less enthused was Giovanni De Francisci, 40, a wealth manager from Boston considering a move to New Hampshire. “Fluff,” he said. “Pure fluff.”
Absent from Jindal’s remarks, brief as they were, was any mention of Common Core, the regime of school achievement standards that has become a tea-party whipping boy — and that Jindal has pushed to the front of his agenda by filing a headline-generating lawsuit claiming it represents federal overreach by the Obama administration.
Also missing, prayers of thanks notwithstanding, was a focused appeal to the Christian right — a theme Jindal has sounded deeply in appearances in Iowa and elsewhere, recounting a personal spiritual journey that has taken him from a Hindu childhood to a teenage conversion to Protestant Christianity to his current identity as an evangelical Catholic.
In the nighttime speech, Jindal expanded on his cornfield-side themes with more jokes. He also touted his assault on Common Core and staked out a vigorous defense of religious liberty, in both cases drawing applause.
But it’s not clear how far he can go in New Hampshire in the guise of born-again culture warrior.
“We do not have a large evangelical community,” Stephen Duprey, the Republican national committeeman for New Hampshire, said Friday. “Up here, people tend to keep their religion and their politics separate.”
In each of the last two national elections, a Christian-right candidate has scored a surprising success in Iowa only to crash and burn in New Hampshire, where independents as well as registered Republicans can vote in the primary.
In 2008, former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses but finished third in New Hampshire behind eventual nominee John McCain (for whom Duprey once worked). In 2012, Rick Santorum tied Mitt Romney atop the Iowa leader board before coming in fifth in New Hampshire, which Romney won on the way to the nomination.
New Hampshire independents tend to be fiscally conservative but not socially so, Duprey said. And the registered Republicans may not be much different. For example, Duprey said polls show a plurality of Republicans in New Hampshire are pro-choice, which could dilute Jindal’s appeal as the staunchly anti-abortion governor of the most staunchly anti-abortion state in the nation.
Nor, Duprey said, is there much distress over Common Core.
What New Hampshire Republicans do care about are taxes and the federal budget deficit, he said.
And New Hampshire has a strong libertarian streak: The state motto is “Live free or die,” displayed on the license plates. That helps explain the strong showing of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in a recent New Hampshire poll, where his 14 percent support topped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 13 percent; Jindal came in at 4 percent.
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