HOUSTON (Reuters) - Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s high-profile Republican response to President Barack Obama’s first address to the U.S. Congress next week could be a key stepping stone for a possible White House bid in 2012.
But pressing problems at home, like a mounting state deficit, could make or break the rising political star’s ambitions.
State political experts say the 37-year-old, Oxford-educated Republican of Indian heritage is maneuvering to be a possible presidential candidate in 2012. Jindal has dismissed such speculation and insists he is focused on getting re-elected in 2011.
As a sign of his ascendant political fortunes, the Republican Party tapped Jindal, a conservative Catholic, to deliver its response to Obama’s first address to Congress on February 24. Obama’s speech is not technically a “State of the Union” address because it’s his first year in office.
“I don’t know if you want to call it charisma, but he’s got it,” said Kirby Goidel, a political science professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the state capital. “He’s smart. He’s confident. He knows his stuff.”
Jindal’s selection is part of an effort by the Republican Party to broaden its appeal. The party, which has long been dominated by white males, recently nominated its first black chairman, Michael Steele, and its first female vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But Louisiana faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit due in part to sagging crude oil royalties, and some Louisiana residents are chafing at the numerous out-of-state trips Jindal has taken to polish his national credentials.
“It’s pretty clear that he is caught up in his national political ambitions,” Goidel said. “He is going all over the place raising money and giving speeches, and the state needs his leadership.”
Jindal’s approval ratings reached a high-water mark in the weeks after Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana last year. Jindal proved his mettle as a detail-oriented administrator who could track ice deliveries and power outages with the precision of a corporate chief executive.
While Jindal’s Democratic predecessor, Kathleen Blanco, was criticized for a fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Jindal received accolades for successfully orchestrating a mass evacuation of the state before Gustav hit.
“Hurricane Gustav came along and he got to be on television a lot and show Louisiana that he was on top of things,” said political consultant and pollster Bernie Pinsonat.
Now, Jindal faces a litany of problems: the lowest-ranked U.S. state for child well-being and overall health, high rates of obesity and infant mortality, and a lagging public education system.
“A lot of people are wondering why he is dividing his time between our problems and running for president,” Pinsonat said.
Though Jindal says his trips are meant to raise money for his 2011 gubernatorial campaign and promote Louisiana business, numerous newspaper columnists in the state have criticized him.
“The product he’s selling out there on the road isn’t his state. It’s himself,” Stephanie Grace wrote last week in an editorial in The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh described Jindal as “the next Ronald Reagan,” referring to the former president considered a hero by many Republicans.
Such comparisons have distracted Jindal from his leadership duties, Goidel said.
“Is he more worried about his image and his PR and his national image, or is he more interested in governing?” Goidel asked. “A lot of people right now worry that he has gotten too caught up in the Rush Limbaugh hype.”
Managing Louisiana during leaner economic times will be a test for Jindal and could make or break his wider political ambitions, Goidel said.
“I can easily see him being a presidential contender, but you can also see him being a commentator on FOX,” Goidel said, referring to the U.S. television network.
Editing by Mary Milliken