Washington — The comments about Gov. Bobby Jindal that surfaced last week from some influential Iowa conservatives must have sounded like music to the ears of the cadre rooting for him to win the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
The head of an Iowa Christian group predicted that Jindal could follow in the footsteps of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the surprise winners of the 2008 and 2012 Republican caucuses in Iowa, respectively, according to news reports.
And a former party operative who now runs a website called The Iowa Republican tagged Jindal as “the dark horse” in the race.
But other recent information suggests that Jindal’s candidacy may be so dark as to be invisible: He did not appear at all in the rankings of top Republican contenders in two Iowa opinion polls, failing to make the list of nine in one case and of 11 in another.
That kind of poll performance is nothing new for Jindal: When he does register, it is consistently in the low single digits.
Jindal, 43, is not, officially, a candidate for president — not yet, anyway: He has delayed a formal announcement until after the Louisiana Legislature ends its session next month. But he has behaved much like a candidate, making repeated trips to Iowa, where the Feb. 1 caucuses kick off the nomination scramble, and to New Hampshire, set to go second with a primary Feb. 9. He also has given speeches on national and foreign policy across the country — appearing, for example, at a health care forum in Washington on Thursday sponsored by the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper.
Jindal displayed a thorough command of the issues at the Thursday forum, true to his whiz-kid, policy-wonk background: An Ivy League graduate and Rhodes scholar, he was appointed to head the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals at age 24, and before he turned 30, he served as executive director of a national commission on the future of Medicare and was named to a high-ranking position in the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Later, after a term and a half in Congress, he was elected governor in 2007 and re-elected in 2011 but is barred by law from running again this year.
Jindal has kept his oar in the wonk waters, publishing detailed proposals on health care, education, energy and defense on the website of America Next, the nonprofit organization that serves as a platform for his policy prescriptions.
But that is not what has drawn the most attention to him among the Republican field.
Jindal has staked out a position as a vociferous culture warrior, in particular raising high the banner of evangelical Christianity. At a January prayer rally in Baton Rouge sponsored by an aggressively right-wing Christian group, he declared, “Our God wins!”
Most recently, he has seized the torch of “religious liberty,” which has functioned as code for hostility to the “gay agenda,” in criticizing the Republican governor of Indiana for backing away from his state’s religious liberty bill and in endorsing a legislative proposal to reinforce Louisiana’s existing law.
As Examiner Managing Editor Phillip Klein put it in a column Friday, “Jindal has disappointed many conservatives who care about policy, because in his efforts to shed his image as a boring nerdy policy guy, he’s grown a habit of seeking cheap applause lines and throwing out red meat to audiences. But there are plenty of other candidates in the race who can satisfy the appetites of the most voracious of carnivores.”
This has all left Klein — whose column is headlined, “Don’t write off Bobby Jindal in 2016” — somewhat wistful.
“It’s quite possible that Jindal doesn’t have a path to the nomination at this point,” Klein wrote. “But if he does have any conceivable path, it isn’t by delivering the best one-liners. It’s by playing the role that he’s most comfortable with — being a steady and consistent voice for a detailed, positive, conservative policy vision.”
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.