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O Governor, Where Art Thou?

As Gov. Bobby Jindal stumps for GOP congressional candidates in other states, his support for fellow Republican John Kennedy feels muted

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You could still see a blotchy, red mark on his cheek minutes after the blow was dealt. At least metaphorically, you could see it — a sideways strawberry with five fingers protruding toward the ear. You could see it in his eyes, which danced around nervously during his closing statement. You could also hear it in his cadence as he twice repeated a sentence about voters wanting change in the U.S. Senate. And thanks to the technology of TiVo and the online archival efforts of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, the verbal smackdown of the election cycle can be viewed at any time, no doubt to the ire of GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy.

In a way, Kennedy was asking for it during the Oct. 12 debate hosted by LPB and the Council for a Better Louisiana. Like throwing wet spaghetti against a wall, he reached for any possible way to link incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu to Democratic nominee Barack Obama. It was old hand. He had been calling Obama and Landrieu liberal peas in a pod for weeks. But noticeably different was Kennedy's overly boastful rhetoric about Republican nominee John McCain. He clearly felt that the "Straight Talk Express" could carry his own campaign as well, at least in Louisiana.

That's when Landrieu smacked him: "John, I know you're trying very hard, but Sen. McCain's coattails are not long enough for you."

It drew the only boisterous round of applause that evening from the Baton Rouge audience, which consisted mostly of college students. She might as well have told him she knew the real John Kennedy, was friends with the real John Kennedy and he was not the real John Kennedy. Considering the flak Kennedy has taken for switching parties last year and the subsequent Democratic attacks — which have been very effective — that he's "one confused politician," the zinger may define Landrieu the way Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's evocation of J.F.K. defined him.

Three days later in New Orleans, during the second televised Senate debate, the red mark was absent from Kennedy's face and his composure was restored. But the word "McCain" never passed his lips, not even once. There were references, however, to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. The treasurer said he wanted to bring the same "fundamental, lasting, conservative change" to Washington, D.C., that Jindal initiated at the State Capitol. It was a new strategy that is still being echoed on the campaign trail today.

It's a smart choice for Kennedy, what with Jindal's approval ratings nearing 80 percent. But it's also structurally ironic. Kennedy is steering clear of presidential politics, which arguably made Jindal a national brand this year because of McCain's hot/cold VP courtship of the young governor. Likewise, it's an issue that keeps Landrieu at bay, because the senior senator would love her own seat on the Ethics Express. "The governor and Sen. Landrieu have worked closely together on many important projects, including hurricane recovery and infrastructure projects," says Landrieu press secretary Scott Schneider.

Here's the real irony: Even though Jindal has officially endorsed Kennedy, there have been lingering questions as to why the governor isn't playing a larger role in the treasurer's increasingly flagging campaign. A search of Kennedy's campaign Web site reveals only 10 references to Jindal, of which half are from media reports containing small mentions. The rest are newsletters or press releases where Kennedy praises Jindal. There are no commercials featuring the two men. If anyone could give Kennedy the shot in the arm he needs, it would be one of the most popular Republicans in the nation.

Instead, Louisiana voters are reading about a jet-setting Jindal who has been campaigning and raising money for Republican congressional candidates in Missouri and Texas. On the day LSU lost miserably to Florida, Jindal was in the Sunshine State stumping for McCain and raising cash for himself. Here in Louisiana, he has hosted fundraisers for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise in the First Congressional District (Jindal's previous public post) and state Sen. Bill Cassidy in Baton Rouge's Sixth Congressional District.

But what about Kennedy?

The popular governor isn't exactly hitting every corner of the state, in person or over the airwaves, to explain why the Republican philosophy espoused by Kennedy is the right choice on Nov. 4. There are several theories. One is Kennedy's admitted gaffe in cheering the failure of a farm aid bill Jindal supported; another is the notion that Landrieu clearly has more congressional experience, which would make Jindal's job of landing federal dough easier.

According to Melissa Sellers, Jindal's communications director, the governor is chipping in. He hosted a fundraiser with President George W. Bush for Kennedy earlier this year and attended another meet-and-greet for the campaign last week in Metairie. Sellers also confirmed that Jindal has officially endorsed Kennedy, not that there was any doubt. The endorsement just seemed to arrive without fireworks.

Roger Villere Jr., chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, says Jindal made many friends during his time in Congress, and his recent whirlwind tour reflects those connections. On the other side of the coin, Villere says Jindal is now a GOP superstar and in high demand everywhere. The governor has staff dedicated to his national outreach; more trips are expected. "I don't see [Jindal] leading the charge right now, but he has been extremely helpful to the treasurer," Villere says. "A lot of what the governor is doing in other states has also been requested by the McCain campaign. Plus, don't forget that he's focused on doing the work of Louisiana."

As the election enters the final two weeks, it seems Kennedy needs Jindal more than ever. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) last week yanked its anti-Landrieu television ads in an effort to move financial resources to other states (read: other states where Republicans appear to have a better chance of winning). Additionally, the usually conservative Advocate, the daily newspaper in Baton Rouge, recently weighed in with this surprising headline: "Landrieu looks strong; Experts feel Kennedy needs game-changer to win." Kennedy spokesman Lenny Alcivar says the NRSC already had exceeded its original budget in Louisiana but stuck around because of the election's competitiveness. There's also enough time left in the election for anything to happen.

As for Jindal, Alcivar says he has been a behind-the-scenes constant in the campaign, offering a "bunch of strategic advice" to Kennedy and helping with fundraisers. But everyone knows the most important stretch of any campaign is during the final weeks, which is when Jindal could stump for his fellow Republican. On this front, Alcivar offers only two words: "Stay tuned."

UPDATE: During the time since this story was filed, the NRSC has reversed its decision to leave Louisiana and is still running attack ads against Landrieu. According to published reports, national Republicans were swayed by the arguments of Louisiana's junior Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Metairie.

UPDATE: During the time since this story was filed, the NRSC has reversed its decision to leave Louisiana and is still running attack ads against Landrieu. According to published reports, national Republicans were swayed by the arguments of Louisiana’s junior Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Metairie.

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