Even the most politically na•ve observer wandering into the Bobby Jindal victory party on Oct. 4 would have sensed immediately that something unusual must be going on in Louisiana politics. It wasn't just that Mr. Jindal, at 32, looks too young to be a governor, or that he has a squeaky-clean reputation in a state known for its colorfully corrupt politicians.
No, the real tip-off was the saris scattered throughout the crowd packed into the ballroom of the New Orleans Crowne Plaza hotel-floor-length, Easter-egg hued, traditional Indian saris.
American Indians, thanks to their booming gambling empires, have become a potent political force in several states, but Indians from the Subcontinent have been largely invisible at the ballot box. That they should make a political debut in the Deep South is surprising enough. That they should unite behind a 32-year-old conservative Republican is even more so.
"Bobby inspires us," explained a shy Indian woman who identified herself only as Mala. "His parents came here for a better life, and in one generation look where they have gotten. We work hard and save our money. We want to believe the American dream. Bobby makes us believe."
For a GOP eager to move beyond its rich-white-male caricature, some believe Mr. Jindal could be the face of the future, but he'll have a tough race to win first. Oct. 4 was merely a primary-a nonpartisan, 17-way brawl that would have garnered California-style media attention had a movie star been involved. Instead, it was the relatively unknown son of Indian immigrants who broke out of the pack to capture 33 percent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, garnered just 18 percent. They'll face off again Nov. 15 in a two-way runoff.
For the GOP, off-year elections like this one are often seen as a harbinger of what to expect next year. Despite net gains in both the House and Senate, Republicans suffered a net loss of governorships in 2002. Another decline could spell trouble: If voters are angry about the economy, they typically take it out first on their own governor, who is viewed as most responsible for local economic woes. But the anger can spread from there, bubbling upward to congressional races and the presidency.
If any place looks ripe for a voter revolt, it's Louisiana. The state's economy is in the doldrums, and young people are moving away in droves in search of a brighter future. Mike Foster, the two-term Republican governor, can't run a third time, making it even easier, in theory, for the Democrats to pick up his open seat.
Mr. Jindal most recently served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services and, as a Bush administration appointee, he could be an easy target for voters upset over job losses and soaring deficits. Not surprisingly, the candidate made the economy a centerpiece of his campaign, promising to attract more employers to Louisiana through favorable tax policies and touting his experience as a budget-slasher. (In 1996, as the 24-year-old secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, he erased a $400 million budget deficit through layoffs and belt-tightening.)
That won't be enough to separate him from Ms. Blanco, however, who presents herself as a moderate, pro-business Democrat. She squeaked through the primary just ahead of two more liberal Democrats and quickly turned her attention to unifying the party. That could spell trouble in November: The top three Democratic vote-getters polled a combined 48 percent, and black voters-nearly a third of Louisiana's electorate-seemed unimpressed with Mr. Jindal's minority status.
The Republican, however, is counting on an entirely different political base. Having converted from Hinduism to Catholicism at age 18, Mr. Jindal is an outspoken social conservative in a heavily Catholic state. During the primary campaign he repeatedly blasted Hollywood, gun-control advocates, and liberal federal judges. He bought radio ads defending the Ten Commandments and circulated a flier criticizing a federal judge who outlawed Louisiana's pro-life license plates.
Political pundits say Mr. Jindal will have to tone down his culture-war rhetoric if he hopes to win over independent voters by Nov. 15, but Mr. Jindal insists he'll continue to campaign for what he believes in. He's proved the pundits wrong since the day he announced his long-shot candidacy. He has no reason to stop now.