Rochester, N.H. — New Hampshire is a lovely place to visit in the summer. The landscape is lush, and even on humid days, cool breezes often break up the misery.
For Gov. Bobby Jindal, who this week made his second trip here since he formally entered the crowded GOP presidential field last month, the Granite State offers not only fresh air but as much of a fresh start as he’s likely to get.
Jindal’s national aspirations may make his own constituents roll their eyes, but at a Monday night town hall meeting at the aptly named Governor’s Inn near the Maine border, he was greeted with open minds — nearly 100 of them.
That so many people would come out to meet him may seem unlikely back home, but here, where early primary politics are something like a state sport, the crowd’s curiosity appeared genuine. So, too, did Jindal, at least according to the reviews from an admittedly self-selected audience.
Unlike Iowa, where Jindal’s overt religiosity is a better fit, New Hampshire is dominated by moderates and independents who are expected to gravitate to candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Still, plenty of voters here are looking for a break from the establishment. Voters I spoke to put Jindal on their short lists alongside candidates like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. They like that he’s a “fresh face” and a governor with executive experience and specific policy proposals, several told me.
If those sound like Jindal campaign talking points, well, they are. So consider the event a reminder that impressions matter, particularly when voters aren’t so familiar with the details of a politician’s record — and haven’t been living with frustration over Jindal’s steep spending cuts, flip-flop on Common Core, embrace of divisive “religious freedom” measures and use of budget gimmicks to create a false impression that taxes are not going up.
And consider it a reminder that, as unpopular as he is at home, as poorly as he can perform on television, as amateurish and nakedly ambitious as his efforts can seem, Jindal’s got a real talent for campaigning.
His relaxed, accessible performance echoed less his eight years as governor than his early days on the campaign trail. It almost felt like his first, impressive but ultimately failed gubernatorial campaign in 2003, the last time Jindal had to actually go out and win over voters. Lawmakers and fellow statewide elected officials complain they rarely speak to the governor, but at the town hall, and presumably at the many others he’s staging in small, early voting states, he stays until everyone’s gone.
As for substance, Jindal proved he still has the keen audience sense he exhibited way back when. While he’s been pounding the argument that Christians should not be forced to provide services to same-sex couples who can now legally marry, here he didn’t bring up the topic in his own remarks and used a more conciliatory tone when answering a question on the subject. That’s smart politics in a state in which his usual confrontational rhetoric could be a turn-off.
And he easily rolled out answers that might have prompted a “yes, but” from his constituents. He talked of eliminating 30,000 “bureaucrats” — a total that includes the employees who moved over to privatized state hospitals and who probably don’t consider, say, nursing a paper-pushing job. He criticized Washington’s revolving door but didn’t mention that Bob Livingston, the chairman of the Jindal-affiliated super PAC that sponsored the event, became one of Washington’s most successful lobbyists after he quit.
He brushed off one unusually informed question about his veto of a measure that would have cut off state funding for his traveling security detail while he campaigns — and drew hearty applause for pushing back.
Jindal, of course, remains a long shot, and he’s still facing the devastating prospect of being cut out of the national debates that start next month.
But for all of those who scoff at his campaign, it’s worth considering why he thinks he might be able to pull this off. The bloom is off back home, but this is a politician who can still turn the occasional head when he’s away.
Nothing sums up Jindal’s two worlds better than the disparity between a pair of editorials that appeared over the last couple of days.
Keying in on Jindal’s contention that Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders “would both turn us into Greece,” The Advocate’s editorial board wrote, “When it comes to fiscal irresponsibility, Jindal is hardly in a position to wag his finger at others. There are nearly two dozen men and women running for president in 2016, but none of the candidates has come as close to bankrupting a government as Bobby Jindal.”
Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s Union Leader followed up Jindal’s visit by labeling him a “compelling figure with the courage of his convictions.”
Yep, Jindal is surely finding New Hampshire awfully nice this summer. And it’s definitely not just the weather.