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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal Racking Up Wins In Shadow Of One Bad Speech

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WASHINGTON -- Most people know Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) as the guy who gave that terrible speech in response to President Obama's 2009 State of the Union address.

Three years later, however, Jindal's name is still on the short list of presidential prospects inside the Republican party.

Jindal, in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, reflected on his widely panned performance. He laughed about the moment that prompted Chris Matthews to mutter, on air, "Oh God," as Jindal seemingly tip-toed down a hallway in the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge to the microphone. But Jindal betrayed no worries about the impact of the speech on his governorship or his political career.

"It was obviously a badly delivered speech," Jindal said. "The good news is, I don't think it's had an impact on my career."

He's mostly right. In fact, the speech may have been something of a blessing in disguise. It took the national spotlight off of Jindal, who had disavowed any interest in running for president in 2012 anyway. With any lure of a run for the White House gone, the 40-year-old son of Indian immigrants who changed his name from Piyush to Bobby at age 4 was freed up to focus on his day job.

He was reelected last October in a landslide, running virtually unopposed and winning 66 percent of the vote. And he has moved with lightning speed this year to implement sweeping reforms of Louisiana's education and state worker pension systems.

In just its second week in session, the state legislature has already passed out of the House two of the four bills that comprise Jindal's education reform package. All are out of committee. A bill that would expand award vouchers to lower-income students in schools receiving a grade of C or lower passed late Thursday night. That is expected to make about half the state's students -- roughly 380,000 -- eligible for a roughly $8,500 "scholarship" to the public, private or charter school of their parent's choice.

Another piece of legislation that would make it much harder for teachers to earn tenure, and would strip them of tenure if their performance slips, was approved by the House well past midnight on Friday morning. Both bills passed by double-digit margins and both bills got yes votes from 12 Democrats each.

The voucher bill alone will be a significant achievement if it passes the state Senate and gets to Jindal's desk for his signature, as it is widely expected to. Republicans control both the House and the Senate, with majorities of 58 to 45 in the House (with two independents), and 24 to 15 in the Senate.

The Wall Street Journal praised Jindal's education bill earlier this year in an op-ed, noting that he "wants to create America's largest school voucher program, broadest parental choice system, and toughest teacher accountability regime -- all in one legislative session. Any one of those would be a big win, but all three could make the state the first to effectively dismantle a public education monopoly."

And once education is done, the legislature will move to pensions, taking up Jindal's proposal to increase state worker contributions to the system by three percent, along with a change to how benefits are calculated and a merger of two pension systems for teachers into one.

All together, Jindal's quick action to pass such substantial legislation -- coming on the heels of a first term marked by a balanced budget, significant tax cuts, ethics reform and consistently high approval ratings -- is positioning him very nicely for the future.

Jindal -- who endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the current primary but has not endorsed anyone since Perry dropped out -- dodged the question about what he plans to do in 2016.

"I've always said that I don't know if I'll ever run for any other office," he said.

He even claimed he has never talked to his wife, Supriya Jindal, about a presidential campaign.

"We've never had that conversation," he said.

It all sounds a bit suspect. But there was a hint at his future ambitions when Jindal talked about the way that Republican governors can put conservative principles to practice.

"A lot of elected Republicans talk about conservative principles. Governors are in the unique position to be able to actually implement those policies, and then show the results, and then be able to show, 'Look, our economies are growing, our budgets are balanced, our kids are doing better in school,'" he said.

Tellingly, he added: "And by the way, I think that's how Republicans can win elections."

Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar and convert to Catholicism, is from the same mold as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.): young, whip-smart, and highly conversant and agile on the substance of health care and budgeting. But both men, while now seen as the next generation of GOP leaders, also lack a Clintonian love for politics as a way of connecting with people. They are not unfriendly, but they also place efficiency above personal warmth.

One Republican consultant in Washington who spoke highly of Jindal's intellect and achievements agreed to assess his political weaknesses on the condition that he not be identified. He compared Jindal to the former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams.

"He's an Anthony Williams technocrat rather than inspirational speaker," the GOP operative said. "And he's young, so people are gonna say he's could use some seasoning."

But Henry Barbour, a Republican consultant and lobbyist from Mississippi, said he thinks voters are looking more for effectiveness than charisma.

"He doesn't have the big personality of some politicians," Barbour said of Jindal. "But I think the American electorate is hungry right now for people who are serious and who will address the huge challenges this country faces with debt, spending, loss of jobs, national security issues."

Barbour, who is supporting Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy, said he hopes Jindal doesn't run in 2016 for the simple reason that he hopes Romney will then be running for a second term.

"But I do think he is one of the people who has the right skills, experience and principles that would make an attractive candidate sometime in the future," Barbour said. "Of course everybody talks about how bright he is, but I find him to be very savvy politically."

Even Democrats in Louisiana agree with Barbour's point about the Jindal political effectiveness.

"He is effective as a politician because he's got a public relations machine that is probably second to none," state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told HuffPost.

Jindal's operation has been driven by 37-year-old Timmy Teepell, his chief of staff during the first term who has joined On Message Inc., a northern Virginia consulting company, but will stay in Baton Rouge and continue to devote most of his attention to Jindal.

Edwards' main criticism of Jindal was that his claims of cutting the state budget by 26 percent in his first term counted the expiration of federal hurricane relief dollars as cuts. For example, Edwards said, Jindal said in his first year that he had cut the budget by $3 billion when in fact he had spent $1 billion more than the year before but federal funding for relief after Hurricane Katrina had decreased by $4 billion.

"They have proven themselves masters at creating this myth around the country at what a great job he's done as governor. Most of it doesn't stand up to scrutiny but it just hasn't been scrutinized," Edwards said.

Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin later responded to Edwards' criticism: "The fact is that the state budget is around $9 billion less than when we entered office. The budget for FY 2008 was $34 billion. It's now around $25 billion." He also noted that Jindal eliminated 9,900 full-time government positions in his first term and that his current budget proposal calls for another 6,000 government jobs to be cut.

But while some will take shots at Jindal's record, he is by and large accomplishing things that Republican primary voters would love. And if Jindal does end up running for president, the main question mark about him will likely be whether he has the personal qualities and the charisma needed for such an endeavor.

Because he is now known mainly for his disastrous 2009 speech, that will be a hurdle. But Ed Gillespie, a former White House adviser to George W. Bush, scoffed at the idea that the speech will hold Jindal back.

"The notion that one speech can define Bobby Jindal's career is absurd. He's got a great record. He's been an effective leader in a very tough state. He's enacted reforms to make things better for the people of Louisiana, and he's done it consistent with conservative principles," Gillespie said.

Jindal himself looks back on the speech as a learning experience.

"One of the things I was reminded by that speech was that you get so much advice. All my life I've been told, you've got to speak more slowly, you gotta slow down, you gotta stop speaking, stop using so many numbers, and stop using acronyms," he said. "And I think that one of the things that that speech proved to anybody that had any doubts about this was, everybody's got their own particular speaking style and they just stick with it."

"People who mean well will try to tell you, 'Hey look, you gotta sound like everybody else. Everybody that does these, this is the way they do it,'" he said. "That may be great for them. Its not good for me … I do better when I speak the way that I normally speak. It's more authentic and it's who I am."

This article has been updated to include comment from Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin, responding to criticism by state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that a bill to expand award vouchers for lower-income students attending schools with a grade of C or lower would make students eligible for a roughly $5,000 "scholarship." The correct figure is $8,500.

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