STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Republicans facing a popular president have had a handful of chances to define themselves and so far, most of them involve President Obama's economic plan.
INSKEEP: There was a vote in the House, where Republicans were united in opposition. There was negotiation in the Senate, where a few Republicans forced big changes.
MONTAGNE: Now comes another moment: the occasion of a presidential address to Congress. The Republican response will come from a critic of the stimulus plan. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is considered a rising star and even a possible presidential candidate.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: The Republicans can't seem to get enough of the 37-year-old Indian-American who's a devout Catholic, a Rhodes scholar, a policy wonk and a political rock star in his home state. Yesterday, there was Bobby Jindal on the White House lawn telling journalists his thoughts on the stimulus package.
Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Certainly, I think there could've been a very different stimulus bill written, truly targeted and temporary, focused on infrastructure, focused on the kinds of tax credits that would've gotten investments moving in the private sectors.
BURNETT: Jindal became the first governor to reject a portion of the president's stimulus package - in his case, $90 million in unemployment benefits - because he said it would have led to increased business taxes. On Sunday, he went on NBC's "Meet the Press," plotting a future for the national party.
Gov. JINDAL: Look, our Republican Party got fired with cause, these last two election cycles. We became the party that defended spending, corruption that we never should've tolerated, and we stopped offering relevant solutions to the problems that Americans care about. I think now is the time - and it's a great opportunity for Republican governors and other leaders to offer conservative-based solutions to the problems. For example…
BURNETT: Remarkably, Jindal's honeymoon is still going after his first year on the burlesque stage of Louisiana politics. The governor gets high marks for his ethics reforms, his take-charge response to Hurricane Gustav last fall, and his ability to connect with everyone from Cajun oystermen to north Louisiana peach growers. But he's not a populist.
In his state, he's an exotic. Thin, slight, dark-skinned and brainy, Jindal reflects the academic bent of his mother and father, rather than the bloodline of Louisiana politicians or planters.
He's had smooth sailing for most of his first year, but that's about to change. Louisiana faces a $2 billion deficit, and cuts to higher education and health care appear inevitable, says John Maginnis, the veteran political watcher in Baton Rouge.
Mr. JOHN MAGINNIS: It's going to be a tougher road coming ahead. The legislators are feeling more independent, resources are tighter, there's going to be more questions about how the money is spent. Yeah, it should be a lot more difficult.
BURNETT: Nationally, Bobby Jindal has nearly everything the Republicans need after their electoral thrashing. He's young, he's a person of color, he's a fresh face, he's religious, he's popular back home. Jindal was on John McCain's short list for running mates.
In November, he went to Iowa — the nation's first caucus state — to give a speech to Christian conservatives, pumping up speculation that he may run for the presidential nomination in 2012.
But with Jindal clearly the flavor du jour of the GOP, is it too much, too early? Roy Fletcher has been advising candidates in Louisiana - both Democrats and Republicans - for 30 years.
Mr. ROY FLETCHER: Anybody right now that's out there running, or appears to be running, for president - and he said he's not, so take him at his word, but it appears that he's running for president - anybody doing that is asking to get their head knocked off. It's too early.
BURNETT: As for Jindal's appearance tonight on national TV, Louisiana will be delighted to have the nation admire its governor. Even people who didn't vote for him are pleased, says political journalist John Maginnis.
Mr. MAGINNIS: I mean, the last time a Louisiana governor had anywhere near so large a national stage, it was on the front steps of a federal courthouse when Edwin Edwards had just been convicted of racketeering. So this is a whole different look for a Louisiana governor.
BURNETT: And after tonight's Republican response, no doubt the pollsters will be quietly testing the electorate to see if the nation likes Bobby Jindal as much as Louisiana does.
John Burnett, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.