Geek Appeal

Bobby Jindal drives a Taurus and listens to the Beatles, but his Internet-driven campaign for governor has kept him in the lead and made him an icon among Gen X-ers.



Only one dolla'! Com' on down, now! See the twooooo-headed rattlesnake!"

The carnival worker barks at people passing by whether they look or not. When eye contact is made, he points with both hands to a gruesome painting hanging over his booth of a snake with four eyes and a set of necks -- caught in Itasca, Texas, the sign promises. There's also a yellow tortoise.

"Com' on folks, jus' step right up! An albino turtle! Right in d'ere! You gotta see it!"

With no takers, the carny steps back in the makeshift booth, leans his head on a fist and stares at a booth selling deep-fried Twinkies for a few minutes before making another pitch. It's an immaculate May afternoon in Gonzales, home of the annual Jambalaya Festival, with an array of bands, one serious cook-off and two-headed reptiles. A light breeze carries the smell of onions and sausage cooking in cast-iron pots, and the sound of a fiddle floats over from the main stage. Just beyond the snake booth, a huge stir of excitement is attracting curiosity.

"That's Bobby Jindal," says a camouflage-clad man, making his way over to the Metairie congressman. He hands a Coors Light can to his wife and wipes a wet palm against his pants. After a quick handshake with Jindal, a volunteer gives the man a push card outlining the candidate's bid for governor. He sticks it in his back pocket and walks away smiling. Others follow, but some only want a sticker. Pretty soon there's a crowd gathered around Jindal and, at one point, it overshadows the line for jambalaya.

When folks from south Louisiana attend a fair or festival, they expect to see a politician or two. It's a form of retail politics Jindal has mastered.

There normally would be hordes of politicos working the Jambalaya Festival, especially in this election year, but Team Jindal is the only campaign in the field this Saturday morning. "That's the way we do it," says the state's top Republican. "I wake up every morning as if I'm 10 points behind. No one is going to outwork us."

Jindal, 36, has been leading in every reputable poll for more than a year now but still campaigns like an underdog and says he sleeps just a few hours each night. One of the more recent telephone surveys, conducted earlier this month by the Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research, had Jindal clocking in at 63 percent in a four-person field.

His closest competitor was state Sen. Walter Boasso, a recently converted Democrat from St. Bernard Parish, polling at 14 percent. Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier Parish, another Democrat, recorded 4 percent, while New Orleans businessman John Georges, the other Republican in the race -- for now -- came in at 1 percent. Rumors are rampant that Georges may switch to Democrat or Independent. The undecided vote was 17 percent, and even when the field included New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat who's still being coy about his plans, the figures don't change much.

But Jindal knows as well as anyone that leads can be blown. When he ran for governor in 2003, he led the 17-candidate open primary, capturing 33 percent of the vote. He appeared atop several polls in the ensuing weeks but eventually finished four points behind Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who chose not to run for re-election after her post-Katrina performance sent her numbers permanently southward.

These days, Jindal has kind words for his former adversary. "You know, I really think she has gotten a bad rap," Jindal says. "Gov. Blanco feels like someone I've known my entire life. She's very approachable and likeable, like a grandmother."

Of course, when Blanco was still in the race, Jindal used the bully pulpit of his congressional seat to lambast her administration. The juxtaposition of his youthful drive with her dowdy inertia is one of the reasons he is enjoying the enviable position of front-runner. Moreover, he has been at the epicenter of a campaign that geared up when Blanco took office in January 2004 and hasn't halted since. The Jindal network includes literally thousands of volunteers, an Internet presence with an audience unparalleled in Louisiana politics and a seemingly endless supply of willing donors. The voting blocs that traditionally thrive in places like New Orleans have yet to be tested in a real way post-Katrina, but Jindal's network is girding for battle. His campaign is so tightly organized that one could easily foresee it morphing into something more than a one-time political run. It could become a movement.

At the core of this movement, if that's what it is, lies a generational shift that has anointed Jindal as its leader. Oddly enough, Jindal doesn't exactly fit into the Pearl Jam demographic that his campaign has so skillfully wooed with launches on YouTube, promises of "revolutionary reform" and video-editing contests. He may look like the runt of the gubernatorial litter, but Bobby Jindal has aged beyond his years.

This time around, Team Jindal is managed by a set of tight-fisted handlers; the candidate isn't the easygoing 32-year-old who granted all-access passes to the media in 2003. Today, it's all business. The new Bobby Jindal has been packaged, mass-marketed and slapped on a bumper sticker -- literally.

At the Mello Joy Café in Lafayette, Jindal is at least 30 minutes late, but no one seems to mind. To help pass the time and market their candidate, a group of young volunteers -- all on the Jindal campaign payroll and who seem to be in their 20s or early 30s -- sets up a table at the front entrance for supporters to pick up yard signs and choose from a wide selection of bumper stickers. Various stickers target farmers, veterans or sportsmen, while others have the themes and colors of Louisiana colleges and sports teams. LSU, UL-Lafayette and the New Orleans Saints asked Jindal to stop using their marks the same week as the Acadiana leg of his statewide bus tour. He granted their requests -- after supplies ran out. Still, the stickers remain a prime example of Jindal's cross-marketing. In contrast to the varied bumper stickers, Jindal's Internet campaign targets one group above all others: the 26-to-46 crowd. He has zeroed in on them better than any Louisiana politician before him, says Ann A. Fishman, president of the New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing Corp. He has more than 500 digital friends on his MySpace page and another group on Facebook, a similar social networking site. There's also a horde of pictures online at Flickr and eight videos on YouTube, all edited with punchy music and quick cuts. The Web sites are connected to Jindal's campaign page, which likewise hosts a blog, RSS feeds and online donations. Georges is the only other candidate with such a formidable Web presence, but he was months behind Jindal in getting it online.

Jindal's youthful zeal plays to the demographic as well, right alongside his impassioned calls for reform. Earlier this summer, a conservative Web site started selling red T-shirts with Jindal's face superimposed over the head of Che Guevara, everybody's favorite South American Marxist.

Much of this may seem quirky, but none of it is new -- just new to Louisiana. Similar movements helped elect Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of California and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura the head of Minnesota. The younger generation is a swing vote that has only recently garnered respect (and attention). "There are going to be more people from Generation X voting in federal and state elections this year and next than ever before, especially as more Baby Boomers move or retire," says Fishman, a registered independent. "People who are watching this are smart to do so."


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