A New Face Rises in Bayou Politics ; If Jindal Wins Nov. 15, He'll Be Louisiana's First Non-White Governor since Reconstruction

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He's been called a wunderkind, a whiz kid, and a political neophyte. And if he wins the runoff election on Nov. 15, 32-year- old Bobby Jindal will become the country's first Indian-American governor.

But when he topped a field of 18 candidates in the Louisiana race earlier this month, his father had one question: "Why didn't you win the election outright?"

It wasn't too far-fetched an expectation. Since attending Brown University and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Jindal has been the secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals, president of the University of Louisiana system, and assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

He's known for turning around struggling agencies and fixing broken budgets. But perhaps most important in the steamy bayous of Louisiana - where racism has been a persistent part of the mental fabric - Jindal would be the first non-white to hold the state's top office since Reconstruction.

"Jindal represents something very different for the state," says Wayne Parent, head of the political science department at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. "We've finally gotten to the point where a minority can participate in the very highest levels of government.

"Louisiana," he adds, "feels very good about itself this week."

Indeed, across the state, residents are buzzing about the upcoming runoff, which pits Jindal, a Republican, against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. Political analysts are saying that it will be a close, highly competitive race and that both candidates have a lot of work ahead of them.

Part of that work may be outlining their differences: Both, after all, represent the changing face of Louisiana politics. Lieutenant Governor Blanco, the most conservative Democrat in what had been a crowded field, is closely aligned with Jindal on issues from abortion to gun control. The former schoolteacher has spent two decades in public office, and enjoys wide name recognition; Jindal, who emphasizes his youth, has been criticized for being less experienced and too bureaucratic in the way he confronts policy issues.

But thus far, he seems to have shored up the conservative white male vote. Ironically, it's this same group that overwhelmingly voted for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan wizard, in a gubernatorial runoff 12 years ago. Pundits say Jindal reached out to the far right by deriding gun control, pushing a pro-marriage, "pro- life" posture, and touting the virtues of the Ten Commandments.

Sitting on donated furniture at his campaign headquarters last week, he says in bursts of rapid-fire response that his conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism when he was 18 is the basis for most of his social perspective. He refers to his church's teachings and the pope's writings freely.

"I think my faith is an important part of how I approach life - how I raise my daughter, how I approach my job," he says. "I don't think you can separate your faith from who you are."

Jindal's parents emigrated from India to Baton Rouge in 1971 so his mother could study nuclear physics at LSU. …