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Blame the Frontrunner

Five reasons why Bobby Jindal has done more than any other candidate this election cycle to discourage voter participation.

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The final stretch is here. On Oct. 20, voters will either elect Bobby Jindal outright as governor or send him into a runoff against one of two former Republican businessmen or a populist Democrat who wants to tax Big Oil. If Jindal wins outright, it will not be a shocker. But in a way, it'll be a shallow victory for the GOP congressman. He could have lived up to his reputation as a political wunderkind (a term that has been overused in recent months) by running an open and accessible campaign " as he did four years ago " but instead he chose to coast through the primary on auto-pilot, hoping for a safe, smooth landing at the Governor's Mansion next Saturday.

What happened?

Simply put, Jindal has been hijacked by forces greater than he. The Republican Governor's Association is pouring money into Louisiana in support of his campaign, which has already raised more than $10 million. The state party made great sacrifices (and stepped on some big toes) to unite behind him early " at the cost of losing two wealthy members who started out as GOP candidates for governor: state Sen. Walter Boasso, who switched to Democrat; and John Georges, now an independent. Powerful men and women, many of whom will be seeking government contracts or influence in the future, have invested in Jindal's campaign. The stakes are high, and Jindal's campaign has left nothing to chance.

That formula " sitting on a big lead " may be the 'safe" political strategy, but it doesn't do much to stir voter interest. Overall turnout could be the lowest in a governor's race in years, in fact.

Here are five ways that Jindal's campaign has transformed a once open and accessible politician into a carefully scripted hologram whose message has done more to dumb down the electorate (and the campaign) than lift it up:

1. Remaining in Lock-Down " Jindal refuses to free up his schedule for debates, but that point is lost on the average voter. So many campaigns these days are waged over the airwaves, and Jindal's hefty war chest has allowed him to run television commercials nonstop for months. Granted, he took part in a debate televised statewide on Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) two weeks ago and attended a Shreveport forum last week, but Jindal continues to dodge community debates or those with large audiences. His three opponents, including Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat, have sacrificed time away from their families and jobs to appear together. Not Jindal.

Jindal also skipped a crime forum in one of New Orleans' most troubled neighborhoods last week. It would have been a symbolic gesture for him to show up, especially in light of the news that Louisiana ranks among the top states for homicides. Instead, he campaigned in Opelousas, home of the hot pepper.

Almost to rub his opponents' noses in it, Jindal agreed to participate in the third televised debate " on Oct. 18 in New Orleans, just 48 hours before the polls close.

2. Much Ado About Nothing " Jindal began this campaign by being as generic as Wal-Mart cookies. He focused his free media opportunities as well as his paid television time on ethics reform. While a high-minded topic, no one else on the ballot in the coming weeks " from legislative contenders to lieutenant governor wannabes " disagrees with the call for reform. Heck, this year even the crooks are against corruption.

It's a sexy issue, but after a while it loses its appeal, and Jindal's talents and campaign money would have been better spent tackling real topics upfront, like the state's dismal performance on hurricane recovery and the lack of quality health care available for low-income families.

3. Well-Crafted Sneak Attacks " Jindal has managed to smear the other major candidates without getting his hands dirty. If he had called Boasso 'corrupt" or Campbell a 'clown" during his appearance in the LPB debate, voters likely would have recoiled. Ironically, Jindal has already done exactly that " but he used professionals in paid commercial spots. Meanwhile, as the other contenders strike out at Jindal, he takes the high ground by calling the attacks 'hypocritical" or 'tasteless."

When Jindal lost to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco four years ago, supporters criticized him for not firing back at Blanco's attacks. He has taken the advice this go 'round " to the max. Jindal's responses almost always come through Timmy Teepell, his campaign manager, thus allowing the candidate to keep his distance. It's smart strategy, but voters deserve to see and hear Jindal in action, not his paid help.

4. Where's the Soapbox? " The best thing about the old Bobby Jindal was that he was fearless. The worst thing about the new Bobby Jindal is that he's not. Four years ago, he was the only candidate for governor who gave this reporter an unfiltered interview on a variety of controversial topics from abortion to the decriminalization of marijuana. This year, it's like pulling teeth to get next to him " it's a popular observation among the working press, although it has only slightly seeped into reports.

The problem of accessing Jindal affects the way he has answered incendiary questions in recent weeks. He has been wishy-washy on condemning the acts of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican ally who once frequented prostitutes and lied about it. When all of the candidates were asked during the LPB debate for their opinion of a possible pardon for former Gov. Edwin Edwards, Jindal punted.

The most pointed quotes from the Jindal campaign typically come from Michael DiResto, a spokesman who also runs the party's 'Fair Fight" blog. DiResto has taken on the other candidates and reporters at daily newspapers, all in a quirky, sharp style that indicates he may have stronger opinions than the candidate.

5. Still Unproven? " Jindal's public career began in 1996, when then-Gov. Mike Foster plucked his Republican protégé out of virtual obscurity and appointed him secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Two years later, members of Congress appointed him executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. In 1999, Foster lured Jindal back to Louisiana and made him president of the University of Louisiana System. In 2001, President Bush tapped Jindal to be assistant secretary for planning and evaluation of Health and Human Services.

In 2003, Jindal ran unsuccessfully for governor. A year later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was re-elected handily last year. But the truth is, he has never stopped running for governor since he lost to Blanco in November 2003. His three years in Congress represent the longest stretch he has spent at a job since he graduated from college.

All of these factors, plus the fact that no one has lit a fire under Democrats, could serve to suppress voter turnout next Saturday. At the same time, Jindal and the Republicans will be doing everything they can to maximize turnout in GOP strongholds " in the hopes that he can win it all in the primary.

It's a counter-intuitive strategy: Lull voters to sleep by not making any noise, then wake up your own voters before Election Day by sounding the alarm.

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