By Peter Schroeder - 10/05/14 06:00 AM EDT
Bobby Jindal is working to show voters he’s more than a wooden wonk by loosening up on the campaign trail.
Now, with a new and improved, more relaxed demeanor, some conservatives are taking a second look at the Louisiana governor for 2016 after largely writing him off as a major contender for the White House.
His talk weaved parts of Jindal’s biography, including a humorous story about how he ended up delivering his third child in his and his wife’s bedroom, but as also peppered with plenty of conservative red meat and criticism of President Obama.
To GOP voters primarily familiar with Jindal thanks to his disastrous rebuttal to President Obama’s first primetime address back in 2009, the governor’s different tenor was a shock.
“It was ‘Wow, I didn’t realize he was so strong,’” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“Most people weren’t even considering him, and after they heard him, they see he has a future,” Perkins, himself a Louisiana native, added.
Jindal is widely expected to mount a 2016 run but so far has struggled to gain traction amid a wide-open, often flashier, GOP field.
On the national level, Jindal is still dogged by that rebuttal speech give years ago that received widespread mockery. However, those close to him and those who have watched the governor closely for years say he’s ready to show a new side.
“That Jindal, and today’s Jindal are very different,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster and political analyst. “He’s kind of let his hair down with his speeches. He’s more relaxed, and he knows how to put a joke into it.”
Five years ago, Bobby Jindal was a name frequently bandied about as a probable presidential candidate. The son of Indian immigrants who rose to become a Rhodes Scholar, he had a compelling biography, a strong academic background, and public policy experience including stints in Congress and the George W. Bush administration.
Then he gave the response to President Obama’s prime-time speech on the economy that effectively served as his first-ever State of the Union address.
The rebuttal was widely panned by pundits on the left and right, criticized for both its delivery and content. The task facing Jindal was quite large, as Obama was a newly elected historic president, the nation was still in the grips of the financial crisis and recession, and GOP popularity was significantly tarnished.
It was Jindal’s best opportunity to make an impression on the national stage, but instead he made the wrong one. His lilting delivery mixed with his Southern drawl drew comparisons to the wide-eyed “Kenneth the Page” from the NBC comedy 30 Rock.
Years later, even Jindal’s closest allies acknowledge he still has to recover from that disastrous national debut, which they attribute to a combination of nerves and inexperience.
“Most people’s impression of his speaking skills go back to his State of the Union response, which was just a terrible speech,” admitted Timmy Teepell, Jindal’s former chief of staff and now political adviser. “He’s definitely gotten a lot better.”
Those who have watched Jindal’s career since say his transition from the stilted speaker of 2009 to a more polished politician has come about as a natural product of time. Serving seven years as governor, as well as a stint as head of the Republican Governors Association, have given him plenty of time to hone the public part of his political persona.
“You’re having to do it all the time, and on a number of different issues every single day, and so he just gets better and better,” said Teepell. “With experience, he’s gotten more comfortable with speaking and letting his personality show.”
But even if Jindal is making strides on the rhetorical front, he still has a long way to go within the GOP if he is going to mount a serious 2016 bid. Polls have consistently shown Jindal at or near the bottom of a wide-open field of Republican candidates.
Even among social conservatives that Jindal hopes to court, he is lagging. A straw poll held at the Value Voters Summit pegged Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzJuan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race Is Georgia turning blue? MORE (R-Texas), the leading favorite, while Jindal came in fifth in the presidential poll. Jindal came in third in the vice presidential straw poll, behind neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Cruz.
However, Perkins said that result was still a positive sign for Jindal. Typically in the basement among GOP surveys, Jindal was at least able to land in the middle of the pack in the straw poll, further evidence his recent courting of social conservatives may be paying off.
“Quite frankly, that to me is pretty good, given that he has not been in the mix,” said Perkins.
Jindal’s camp argues that any low numbers now exist because voters don’t know the governor, not because they don’t like him.
But even back home, Jindal is weighed down by poor polling. A late September poll from the Democratic Public Policy Polling found Louisianans disapproved of his job performance 55 percent compared to just 34 percent approval.
Nonetheless, Jindal has tried to make a national impression with a few high profile fights. In addition to touting his pro-life bona fides, Jindal sued the federal government in August over Common Core, the federal set of academic standards and testing.
“Jindal’s not that well-known,” said Pinsonat. “He needs an issue that’ll give him national exposure. It takes a lot of national attention for most voters to know who a guy is.”
“People are going to have plenty of time to get a better impression of Governor Jindal,” predicted Teepell. “That speech won’t be the only thing they remember about him.”