Emerging through mirrored elevator doors onto the top floor of the 100 Club, an elegant private club that overlooks the brick-and-cobblestone streets of downtown Portsmouth, N.H., was a cluster of important-looking people, mostly men. Amid the dark suits, easily lost in the movements of broader-shouldered men, was one youthful, thin male with the distinct appearance of an aide to a powerful man. One might have thought he was the assistant to whichever man accompanied the dazzling, dark brunette in the flame-red dress, were one to have noticed him at all.
As the tightly packed group made its way down the short hall to the main room, almost everyone's attention was directed to the thin man in the middle. Those who weren't watching him were watching the woman in the red dress, who walked beside him. In a moment it was apparent that the most striking woman in the building was with none of the taller, more imposing-looking men, but with the unassuming, almost frail one whose off-the-rack navy suit hung loosely from his frame, giving him something of the appearance of a teenage boy going to his first semi-formal dance.
The clutch of suited men was whisked into a side room, where the thin man and the woman in the red dress took a position by the window. Soon other suited men and skirt-suited women flowed in and gathered round, forming a haphazard queue facing the thin, dark-skinned couple, whom anyone could now identify as the most-VIP in the VIP reception.
Pedestrians who had passed this couple on the sidewalk minutes earlier might have noted the wife, although that is no guarantee in downtown Portsmouth, where attractive, well-dressed women float by with distracting frequency. But few would have noticed her husband strolling at her side. They might have given a glance, at best, to the man who might one day be the most recognizable, and powerful, person on the planet.
The event yesterday afternoon was a fund-raiser for John Stephen, Republican candidate for governor of New Hampshire. In attendance were 70 or so Republican donors, including several multi-millionaires of statewide, if not regional, prominence. All had come to see the man who didn't even fill out his suit: Bobby Jindal, governor of the state of Louisiana.
In that small room, late on a cloudy Thursday afternoon, Bobby Jindal gave his first speech ever in New Hampshire, the state that, 15 months from now, will hold the first presidential primary in the 2012 election season.
In New Hampshire, retail politics is king. You cannot win the first-in-the-nation primary if you are bad at winning over small crowds of voters, if you haven't the personality to make a room full of people think, "I like that guy." Granite State political operatives size up candidates on how well they can work a room, tell a story, make people smile. Before yesterday, the New Hampshire scouting report on Bobby Jindal was that he was sharp as a whip, but very wonky, and policy wonks tend to lack the social skills needed to thrive in the primary. After yesterday, the scouting report is very different.
What Bobby Jindal did at the 100 Club on Thursday afternoon was to swiftly, deftly, and without the slightest hint of insincerity or effort, make a few dozen important and seasoned New Hampshire Republicans say to themselves, "I like that guy."
Jindal warmed up the crowd with jokes about being a politician from a state famous for its corrupt politicians. But his jokes weren't barbed or insulting. Mitt Romney jokes a lot about being a Republican from Massachusetts. The jokes work with Republican crowds that aren't from Massachusetts, but to some they come across as insulting to his home state. They can be taken as expressing the general thought: "Can you believe the fools I have to put up with back home?" There is none of that in Jindal's jests. They are directed at politicians, not the people who elect them. So they not only break the ice, but they instantly establish him as a political outsider, a normal person thrust into a corrupt world by the calling of public service.
From corrupt Louisiana pols, Jindal transitioned to the spendthrift Obama administration and current Democratic Congress, which he said were filled with people who refuse to balance their budgets the way American families have to do because they think the rules everyone else has to live by don't apply to them.
With tales of federal bureaucratic incompetence during the Gulf oil spill cleanup effort, Jindal managed to pull off the very difficult trick of coming across as both reluctant hero and common-sense everyman who doesn't know much, but knows incompetence when he sees it. He later told self-deprecating stories about his interactions with returning National Guard soldiers. In these, the soldiers and their wives always looked great, but he always came across as clumsy and even unworthy of being in the presence of these warriors.
When it came to the meat of the speech, Jindal tied the need for frugality in Washington to the need for frugality in the states and gave a five-point crash course in how Louisiana straightened out its budget and laid the foundation for expanded job growth. He didn't just rattle off a list of his accomplishments. On each point, he said "we," not "I," as if he were just one part of an inter-branch government reform effort. And he tied each point to New Hampshire, noting that John Stephen has plans for similar reforms here.
He closed the sale by reminding the attendees that donating to Stephen's campaign was helpful, but not enough. If they cared about their state, they wouldn't just pat themselves on the back for contributing and then go home to watch the race on TV. They would vote. They would encourage their friends to vote. They would ask everyone they know to vote, and vote for Stephen.
Before Jindal arrived, the mood in the room was similar to that of a charity cocktail party. It was mostly a lukewarm mix of business and social pleasantries. By the time Jindal left, the room was practically vibrating with energy. Every person I spoke with after the event was impressed with the performance, and these are people who have weathered many primaries and met many presidents.
In the next few weeks, these people will meet other Republicans at campaign events, and they will tell of the great speech Bobby Jindal gave in Portsmouth. They will speak of how funny he was. They will speak of how charming he was. They will speak of how well he listened and how warm his eyes were. Many of them will make sure they are in the room the next time Bobby Jindal comes to New Hampshire to speak. And because of them, that crowd is going to be bigger than the first. If Jindal can keep that trend going, his future will be bright indeed.