By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s focus on states important in the presidential campaign is drawing lots of criticism at home and doing little apparent good for his 2016 prospects.
Lost — at least for now — in a pack of better-known White House contenders, Jindal is taking heat in Louisiana for a $1.6 billion budget shortfall that threatens colleges and health care services with deep cuts. Lawmakers from both parties say his national political ambitions are a distraction.
“People, I believe, would love to separate themselves from him,” said Republican state Sen. Robert Adley.
Despite frequent travel, his attention to national issues, a good relationship with religious conservatives and plenty of sharp rhetoric against President Barack Obama, Jindal is making little impact in the Republican race.
Even so, it’s early in the contest, and the term-limited governor is expected to announce a presidential bid after state lawmakers wrap up their legislative session in mid-June. He’s sent political aides to Iowa and recently announced the hiring of a political operative for New Hampshire.
A Catholic convert raised by Hindu parents, Jindal has pivoted from his reputation as a policy wonk to make his religious beliefs the centerpiece of a possible White House campaign. He’s courted evangelical Christians through meetings with pastors and aggressively promoted “religious liberty” in speeches.
So far, however, party leaders and key donors have been slow to embrace his national ambitions.
And he’s competing for the religious conservative vote against more well-known contenders, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“The good news for Governor Jindal is he’s making a good impression with Iowa’s evangelical leaders,” said former Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn. “The bad news for Governor Jindal is that there’s about a half dozen candidates that are also trying to fish in that pond.”
Among Louisiana residents, Jindal’s approval has dipped into the high 20s and low 30s in recent surveys. The governor suggests that’s because “reform is always controversial. Democracy is messy.
“But the end result has been a stronger, more prosperous Louisiana for our children,” Jindal told lawmakers last week as the state’s annual legislative session began.
Yet Jindal’s tax proposals have misfired with lawmakers, who are working on their own budget-balancing ideas in a state where the Legislature traditionally takes its lead on spending plans from the governor.
Many South Carolina Republicans who turned out recently to hear Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said they are looking to governors as they decide on a 2016 candidate. Few mentioned Jindal among their top choices.
Cary Powell, who works in financial services in Myrtle Beach, likes what Jindal has done in Louisiana and says “I don’t know why he’s not taking off.”
Jindal, said Norm Fay, a Massachusetts native who retired to South Carolina, is a “smart, good conservative.” But, “He can’t win.”
Fay explained that he was referring to Jindal’s slight build, his mannerisms and his speaking delivery — all mocked in 2009 when Jindal delivered the GOP response to Obama’s first address to Congress.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist, said the Louisiana governor has time to gain traction.
“I wouldn’t call it hopeless. The race is still wide open,” he said. But: “Almost everyone in the field is more well-known than he is. Is it an uphill battle? Yes.”
Mackowiak said Jindal needs to make more visits to Iowa after Louisiana’s Legislature wraps up its work in two months.
More frequent trips, though, risk exacerbating tensions back home. Jindal’s been away from Louisiana 45 of the first 100 days of this year, according to an Associated Press tally.
His absenteeism is so frequent it sparked an April Fool’s joke from Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, who tweeted April 1: “Bobby spotted at the Capitol. (April Fool).”
Overseas travel has also raised eyebrows. He drew widespread criticism for a London speech in which he repeated heavily disputed claims that Muslims have established “no-go zones” in European neighborhoods that operate outside of local civic control.
Even Republicans running to succeed him as governor have picked up on the perception that Jindal has governed Louisiana as if it’s a platform for the White House. One candidate, Republican Sen. David Vitter, said if elected governor, “I’m not going to worry about what national political groups think.”