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 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 smack-down of the election cycle can be viewed at anytime, no doubt to the ire of GOP 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 available way to link incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu to Democratic nominee Barack Obama. It was old hand and nothing new. He had been likening Obama and Landrieu to liberal peas in a pod for weeks. But noticeably different was Kennedy’s overly-boastful rhetoric about Republican nominee John McCain. He was clearly confident that the “Straight Talk Express” could benefit his own campaign.
That’s when Landrieu’s hand came down with a vengeance: “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 offered by 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. It was certainly enough for Lloyd Bentsen to make debate history in 1988 during his vice presidential showdown against Dan Quayle. And considering the flack Kennedy has taken for switching parties within the last year and the subsequent Democratic smear campaign that he’s “one confused politician,” the zinger may have drawn another thunderous response.
Three days later in New Orleans, during the second televised Senate debate co-sponsored by WDSU-TV, the red mark was absent from Kennedy’s face and his composure was restored. But the word “McCain” never passed his lips, 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, especially 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 due to McCain’s hot-cold VP courtship of the young governor. It’s likewise an issue that keeps Landrieu at bay, since the senior senator isn’t above wanting her own piece of 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.
But 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 clumsy 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 haven’t been any commercials cut with two men, either. It doesn’t make sense — if anyone could give the Kennedy campaign the shot in the arm it needs, it would certainly be one of the most popular Republicans in the nation.
Instead, Louisiana voters are reading about a jet-setting Jindal in their daily newspapers. He’s been campaigning and raising money for Republican congressional candidates in Missouri and Texas. On the day LSU lost miserably to Florida, Jindal was also in the Sunshine State stumping for McCain and raising cash for his own benefit. Still, he’s not completely absent. Jindal has hosted other fund-raisers for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise in the 1st Congressional District (Jindal’s previous public post) and state Sen. Bill Cassidy in Baton Rouge’s 6th Congressional District.
But what about Kennedy? What has Jindal done for him lately? The enormously popular governor isn’t exactly hitting every corner of the state, in person or over the airwaves, explaining why the Republican philosophy espoused by Kennedy is the right choice on Nov. 4. There are theories ranging from the meritorious (like Kennedy’s admitted gaffe in cheering the failure of a farm aid bill Jindal supported) to the questionable (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 fund-raiser with President 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 decision 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 part of this whirlwind tour is due to those connections. On the other side of the coin, Villere says Jindal is now a GOP superstar and in high demand. The governor has staff dedicated to his national outreach, and more trips around the country 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 boils down to less than two weeks, it seems Kennedy needs Jindal more than ever. The National Republican Senatorial Committee planned to yank its television advertisements that attack Landrieu to move financial resources to other states but later stated that it would continue to run the ads for another week in Louisiana. Additionally, the usually conservative Advocate, Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper, 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 had already exceeded its original budget for Louisiana but stuck around due to 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 fund-raisers. But everyone knows the most important stretch of any campaign is during the final weeks, which is when Jindal might step up and stump it hard for his Brother in Bureaucracy, his fellow Republican. On this front, Alcivar offers only two words in closing: “Stay tuned.”
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