Is Bobby Jindal the GOP's Obama?

Bobby Jindal is in a hurry. It was only an hour ago that the Louisiana governor, 37, landed near the town of Longville (population: 2,462) and descended from his helicopter, Pelican One, into an SUV bound for the local Baptist church. And it'll be only a little while before Jindal reboards the chopper and resumes a tour that will, by bedtime tomorrow, take him to Breaux Bridge, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Arcadia and, finally, New Orleans—a typical, 1,000-mile, midweek excursion for the boyish politician who rarely bothers to eat or urinate when traveling, which is almost always.

But in the meantime, Jindal must answer The Question. Ever since arriving at the Longville church for today's event, the governor has been sprinting through his "New Louisiana" stump speech, a self-promotional recap of his 10 months in office, at the relentless pace expected of a guy who graduated from Brown at 21, completed his Rhodes scholarship at 23, ran Louisiana's Health and Hospitals department at 25, presided over the University of Louisiana system at 28 and served in Washington as an assistant secretary of health and human services and two-term U.S. congressman before becoming the country's first Indian-American governor at the advanced age of 36. Swimming in his blue blazer, the 5-foot-11, 135-pound Jindal looks more like a bashful science-fair contestant than the latest successor to flamboyant Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, and if it weren't for Jindal's lavish Southern drawl, he'd risk sounding more like one, too; this morning's remarks, like nearly everything he says, have consisted largely of the phrase "a couple of things" followed by a flurry of details, statistics and multipart plans.

Now Clyde Dennis wants to know how hurried Jindal really is. "Tell me about your national aspirations," says the burly 65-year-old justice of the peace, rising from his chair. "Keep hearing your name on TV and all that kind of stuff. We want to keep you in state here. Don't want you to go to D.C." Having fielded The Question before—after all, Jindal frequently appears on cable to explain how the GOP should "right its ship"—the governor is ready with The Answer. "I've got the job that I want," he says. "I told y'all a year ago that we've got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our state. I want to be a part of that. And if you let me, I'm going to run for re-election. I'm not running for president. I think the American people are tired of politics, they're tired of elections, they're tired of campaigns. Anybody out there running for president four years from now, eight years from now, they're not helping themselves—and they're sure not helping their country."

Three days later, Jindal, a Roman Catholic convert raised in a Hindu household, will repeat these lines, unprompted, at a gathering of nearly 1,000 adoring Christian activists. Which would be unremarkable, except that the event will take place not in Louisiana but in Iowa—the site, it just so happens, of the nation's first presidential caucuses.

There are plenty of rising stars in the GOP. But in the wake of Barack Obama's victory on Nov. 4, none has attracted as much speculation, curiosity and unapologetic hype as Jindal. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently called him "the most transformative young governor in America." Radio host Rush Limbaugh refers to him as "the next Ronald Reagan." John McCain eyed Jindal as a running mate, and Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief strategist, told The Washington Post in November that "the question is not whether he'll be president, but when he'll be president—because he will be elected someday." For his part, Jindal says he's uninterested in 2012—and given how his plan to run for re-election in November 2011 will make it near-impossible to prepare for the following January's nominating contests, he's probably telling the truth. But a veep slot—or 2016—is possible. "First of all, he's brilliant," antitax crusader Grover Norquist tells NEWSWEEK. "Two, he's from an immigrant community, so that speaks to immigrant experience, period. Three, he's a Catholic who lives his values instead of shouting at you about them. Four, he's a principled Reagan Republican. Five, he's from the South but doesn't look like a Southern sheriff. And he's got more successes as a governor, already, one year in, than George W. Bush or Obama had when they ran for president. He's exactly what we need."

This, of course, is the same sort of swooning that propelled a certain Illinois state senator to the presidency. So it's no surprise that "many prominent members of the GOP," as the Post noted, already consider Jindal their "own version of Obama"—the charismatic, nonwhite, Ivy League change agent destined to revitalize his party. Critics carp that Jindalmaniacs are simply jumping on the Benetton bandwagon, and Norquist admits that having at least one young, brown-skinned prospect is "helpful" in the age of Obama. But Jindal is no token. As his rise reveals, the governor shares with the president-elect something deeper—and, for Democrats, more dangerous—than age or color: the ability to walk between worlds. Immigrant and native, Brown and Baton Rouge, right and center, principle and pragmatism. The question now is whether Jindal can balance the dueling demands of Louisiana and Washington while preserving his fragile image as the future of the GOP. Louisiana Democratic Party spokesman Brian Welsh, for one, isn't betting against him. "Jindal's a force of nature," Welsh tells NEWSWEEK after following the governor to Iowa. "That's why I'm here, man. He's for real."

For Jindal, navigating difficult crosscurrents is nothing new. Born Piyush Jindal on June 10, 1971, to one of the few Indian families in Baton Rouge, he suddenly announced at the age of 4 that he would answer only to "Bobby," in honor of his favorite "Brady Bunch" character. Asked by NEWSWEEK why he chose an American name, Jindal insists that "there wasn't a whole lot of great thought gone into it." But Jan Daly, Jindal's English teacher, recalls that her top student "wanted to be Westernized." As a teen, Jindal rejected his parents' loose Democratic ties to become a staunch Reagan Republican—in part, he has said, because the Gipper was "very popular" and "easy to identify with." By the time Jindal arrived at Brown in 1988, he was a regular Alex P. Keaton. Arshad Ahsanuddin, a close friend, e-mails that Jindal sported "penny loafers with actual pennies in them" on campus, claiming, when confronted, that "it was the traditional way to wear that type of shoe." Since narrowly losing his first gubernatorial bid in 2003, Jindal has rarely appeared in public without cowboy boots.

Some might see Jindal as a political opportunist. But the governor's history of self-invention, yet another echo of Obama, seems less a product of ambition than of assimilation. Early on, everyone expected Jindal to fulfill the wishes of his demanding immigrant father by entering medicine—including Jindal himself. So the idea that he spent puberty polishing his political persona is a tough sell. "I never thought Bobby would run for office," says Mary Beth Guillot, his high-school principal. "He just wasn't the backslapping, glad-handing type." Instead, he has always been the consummate Organization Kid, striving to meet or exceed institutional expectations. As a college intern, he impressed Shreveport Rep. Jim McCrery with a massive manuscript on Medicare reform; five years later, he asked McCrery to recommend him for Louisiana health secretary. "How about deputy?" McCrery inquired. "No," Jindal, 24, replied. He got the interview—and the job.

Jindal is hardly ashamed of his heritage; at Brown he once answered a professor's hypothetical question—"If a high school only took the brightest students, would it be mostly white or mostly black?"—by slipping Ahsanuddin a note that read "all Asian." But he's also been careful not to rock the boat by suggesting, as Ahsanuddin puts it, that he "[sees] himself as a minority"—much, in fact, like Obama. Even now, asking Jindal if he's ever felt out of place elicits an assurance that he's "an American … who had birthdays at McDonald's like everybody else." "Bobby's just logical and analytical," says Daly. "He sees what he wants to accomplish and knows how to do it."

Together, Jindal's adaptive instincts and intellectual drive fueled his conversion to Catholicism. At 12, an evangelical friend named Kent gave him a paperback Bible for Christmas. Raised in a "strong Hindu culture," Jindal considered himself "anti-Christian" and stashed it in a closet. But a crush, Kathy, soon convinced him to read the book "from cover to cover." Jindal gradually warmed to the Scriptures, and while watching a Passion film at Kent's church, he was suddenly "convicted" of his "sinfulness and [his] need for a savior." Most conversion narratives end there. But Jindal's doesn't. Ever the A student, he studied Kent's Bible "by flashlight" and even "learned bits of Latin, Greek and Hebrew." After a long stretch of soul searching, Jindal concluded that Protestantism lacked "scriptural cogency" and decided to become a strict Catholic instead. ("Bobby said he trusted God to put his own house in order," recalls Ahsanuddin.) Although critics have questioned the governor's motives—Hindu activist Ramesh Rao recently wrote that "Jindal knew well that [conversion] was the only way, as an Indian-American Hindu, he could achieve his political ambitions"—his deeply Catholic views, including a "100 percent" opposition to abortion "with no exceptions" for rape, incest or health of the mother, undoubtedly anger more voters than they attract. "If I wanted the aesthetics without the inconvenient morality," he wrote in 1998, "I could become Episcopalian."

Nowhere is Jindal's commitment to Christianity more evident than in the 15 essays, Obama-esque in their self-scrutiny, that he published in the New Oxford Review and other Catholic journals between 1991 and 1998. In the most controversial, he details an amateur exorcism he witnessed at Brown. One day, a friend—called Susan in his 1994 account—confessed that she'd started seeing "visions" and smelling sulfur when doctors discovered a cancerous lump on her scalp; soon after, she fell to the floor at a prayer meeting and started "thrashing about." As Susan screamed "Bobby," the group pinned her down and chanted, "Satan, I command you to leave this woman." But Jindal was too terrified to "confront the demon." Eventually, the struggle subsided; Susan claimed she felt "healed." A short time later, surgeons removed the bump—and, according to Jindal, "found no traces of cancerous cells." The account has already raised eyebrows among skeptics who find it difficult to reconcile the governor's Brown biology degree with a belief in demonic possession—liberal bloggers, for example, now call Jindal "the Exorcist"—but he seems unfazed. "It's important to share your spiritual experiences with people who might benefit," he says. "There are a lot of things in this life that we won't understand, and that's OK. How do you explain the Sacraments? How do you explain the Resurrection? Those are hard concepts. So I didn't try to interpret it or declare what happened, because I don't know."

Holding court at the Breaux Bridge city hall, Jindal isn't discussing "The Brady Bunch," or the Bible, or his encounter with "an evil force." He rarely does. Instead, the governor is repeating the sunny speech he delivered two hours earlier in Longville. The concept is simple: Jindal as both the embodiment and the architect of a "New Louisiana." In 2003, the story goes, the D.C. hotshot returned to Baton Rouge and vowed, if elected, to reverse Louisiana's brain drain by spurring growth and combating the state's storied corruption. Attacked as a bloodless bureaucrat, Jindal, then 32, lost to Kathleen Blanco. But after Blanco botched the response to Hurricane Katrina, voters developed buyer's remorse—and chose the competent wunderkind by a 37 percent margin in the next election. Shortly after assuming office in January 2008, Jindal convened two special sessions of the state legislature to kick-start his agenda, and he spends much of today's speech listing key accomplishments: sweeping ethics reforms that catapulted low-ranking Louisiana to the top of watchdog lists; tax cuts worth more than $500 million; a smooth, widely praised response to Hurricane Gustav; a major workforce-development program; and a new plan to control Medicaid costs and improve coverage for low-income residents. Local critics—on both the left and the right—often complain that Jindal, eager for national attention, claims more credit than he deserves, and he faces serious challenges in the near future, including a $1.3 billion budget deficit. But in person—and on paper—it's difficult to deny that he is an effective rookie.

Competence, it seems, is the cornerstone of his post-Bush appeal—both within the party and, perhaps, beyond it. Satisfy the right with your personal convictions; sway the center by actually solving problems. "Jindal can play up the wonkier side of his résumé because he already has this visceral, implicit connection with rock-ribbed social conservatives," says journalist Reihan Salam, coauthor of "Grand New Party." "Everyone can see what they want in him: the reformers and traditionalists battling for control of the GOP, as well as the independents who will decide future elections." In Breaux Bridge, Jindal doesn't boast about the bill he signed allowing public schools to teach intelligent design. He doesn't have to. Instead, he can focus on more pragmatic achievements—and build chic postpartisan cred in the process. As Jindal finishes posing for photos, Gloria Kern, a blind, 83-year-old lifelong Democrat, saunters over and touches his shoulder. The governor leans in. "I didn't vote for you," she says. "But I've been impressed." Back in Baton Rouge that evening, Jindal attributes his 69 percent approval rating to "authenticity." "Even when the voters don't agree with you on everything," he says, "if they see that you have relevant solutions, they'll support you."

Three days later, an influential crowd fills the West Des Moines Sheraton: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, evangelical activist Chuck Hurley, Washington Post reporter Michael Leahy, Amy Lorentzen of the Associated Press and hundreds of local Christians, who collectively paid $150,000 to behold the next Reagan. Onstage, Jindal jokes that "any of you [who] came to hear a political speech … might want to consider getting involved in some kind of recovery program," but organizers privately acknowledge that Iowa is Iowa, and tongues will wag. Aware, it seems, of the searing national spotlight, the governor avoids abortion, gay marriage and intelligent design in favor of less combustible topics like "the coarsening of our culture," the future of the GOP and, of course, bipartisanship. "It's time for us to work together," he says. "Whether you voted for [Obama] or not … [he's] our president, [and he] need[s] our prayers." As the Grand Ballroom empties out, most attendees don't seem to mind the omissions; after all, they're certain that Jindal "shares their values," as Michelle Fetters-Steen, 54, puts it. "He even reminded me a little of Obama," adds Kristen Anderson, a home-school mother. The day's only complaint, in fact, comes from retired physician Oscar Beasley, 81, who grumbles that "these people" are invading Iowa "a little earlier than usual." "Also, the guy talks too fast," Beasley adds. "He should probably slow down.