By MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Bobby Jindal's rough national debut seems long forgotten.
Louisiana's youthful governor routinely now receives praise in GOP circles across the nation. He's being cast as a knowledgeable policy wonk with strong conservative credentials who appeals to the Christian right and can claim a long list of accomplishments, such as leading the state through a series of disasters, including the Gulf Coast oil spill.
He's being talked up so often as a future leader in the party that Republicans, many in evangelical circles, say presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be crazy not to seriously consider choosing the 41-year-old Oxford-educated governor as a running mate.
Romney and Jindal planned to be together Monday at a fundraiser in the state, an appearance certain to increase the vice presidential speculation and draw more demurs from Jindal about whether he wants the job. "No disrespect to Joe Biden, nobody's going to the voting booth and voting based on who's vice president," he told NBC on July 1.
Jindal's rebound is something that Republicans in Washington once had suggested would be difficult, if not impossible, after his nationally televised response in 2009 to President Barack Obama's first State of the Union address to Congress was widely panned. Jindal's fans and critics alike described his performance as awkward and amateurish, and said the governor was "not ready for prime time."
Jindal has painstakingly worked to repair his image since then.
He did it by governing in line with his rock-ribbed conservative beliefs and showing leadership at critical times in a state often regarded as dysfunctional at best and corrupt at worst.
"He's a real powerhouse," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, a Texas native who runs a political and communications strategy firm in Washington and doesn't work for Jindal. "He's as good as it gets from a conservative standpoint."
In office since 2008, Jindal has rejected any tax increases, despite repeated rounds of budget cuts to education and health care. He also pushed into law a statewide voucher program and other initiatives that give Louisiana one of the most expansive school choice programs in the nation, a big priority for the conservative base of the party.
Even so, Jindal has drawn his share of criticism in the state, including from fellow Republicans.
Some fiscal conservatives in the Louisiana House don't like the governor's approach on budget matters, saying that using patchwork funding to pay for ongoing state services is at odds with his rhetoric of needing to shrink the size and costs of state government. Teacher unions and local school boards have sued over the constitutionality of his education revamp, and critics have complained about his deep cuts to state higher education funding. His ethics overhaul also has received criticism that it damaged enforcement.
Louisiana Democrats and other critics say that Jindal is pandering to national party interest and partisan politics at the expense of the state's needs.
"He's very self-serving," said former state lawmaker Vic Stelly, a Republican-turned-independent who recently resigned from the state's top higher education governing board over complaints about the Jindal administration's cuts to colleges. "All the so-called reforms, it'll be years down the road before we know if they amount to anything. I don't think they will."
Backers who want him on the GOP ticket look beyond those complaints and note his assets.
They say his health care background and knowledge as a former state and federal health official would be increasingly valuable as Republicans focus on repealing Obama's health care law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
They also note that Jindal could help Romney solidify his standing with religious conservatives who still view him skeptically, in part because of his Mormon faith. Left unsaid is the obvious about Jindal: his ethnicity. He's the son of Indian immigrants. His ascension could make a huge statement about the Republican Party's inclusiveness as it seeks to boost its support among minorities, most of whom lean Democratic.
Grover Norquist, the well-known anti-tax-increase activist of Americans for Tax Reform, has said Romney should pick Jindal. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Romney's defeated presidential rivals, has showered praise on the Louisiana governor as the future of the party. Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, is among the notable members of the evangelical community who are pushing for Jindal's selection.
Says GOP pollster John McLaughlin, whose firm has done work for Republican organizations and candidates around the country, but not for Jindal: "At a time when Gov. Romney has to put forth a response to an unsuccessful presidency, Gov. Jindal's seen as the type of substantive person you'd like to have around."
Jindal backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primary over Romney. Even so, he's proved to be a loyal supporter since Romney clinched the nomination, traveling the country to give speeches on his behalf and appearing on national television to criticize Obama or counter the president's attacks against the candidate.
At times, it's seemed like Jindal was auditioning for the job. But don't expect him on Monday to entertain questions about whether he's being vetted or would serve on the ticket. He's dodged those questions, talking about his love of his job as Louisiana's chief executive while showering praise on Romney.
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