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Bobby Jindal's campaign to be 2016's wonk

It’s the start of what promises to be a multi-year campaign to be the GOP’s next big thing—2016’s wonk, the guy with the answers.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference, March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference, March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Just a week after a judge smacked down Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's attempt to repeal Common Core education standards in his state, the Republican upped the ante: he filed a lawsuit against the federal government, saying the standards he'd so enthusiastically supported years ago actually violate the Constitution.

"It’s simple: the federal government has hijacked and destroyed the Common Core initiative," Jindal told msnbc. 

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in a federal court in Baton Rouge, catapults the Jindal, a possible 2016 presidential hopeful, to the center of yet another big policy feud -- one that has particularly animated tea party supporters and other conservatives who form the core of the party's base.  

In the last few months, Jindal has worked to raise his profile nationally -- offering up policy alternative after policy alternative on many contentious issues.

It's clear his party is taking note of the onetime rising star, famously remembered for flubbing a Republican state of the union rebuttal speech in 2009.

The 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney mentioned Jindal's name in a Tuesday interview as one of the handful Republicans with "extraordinary records" and "great capability." Texas tea party darling Sen. Ted Cruz—another potential 2016 candidate—dodged questions in Iowa about whether or not he'd be supporting the Louisiana governor for president, laughing and saying merely "I am a big fan of Bobby Jindal."

On "Morning Joe" earlier this month, Jindal said he's "thinking and praying" on 2016 and wouldn't decide until November. But GOP insiders tell msnbc that it's quite clear where his head is.

“The signs are pretty obvious—you see people traveling to certain states, putting together a finance team, putting staff together, then you know they’re at least considering it,” GOP operative Henry Barbour told msnbc of Jindal's recent visits to states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

"A lot of these candidates are really worrying about positioning, the governor’s not thinking that way," added Curt Anderson, a Jindal consultant who's been with the governor since he first ran for office. He argued that Jindal is focusing on policy, because that's just who he is. 

In the last two months, besides his fight against Common Core, Jindal has released a playbook on helping Republicans oppose Obamacare while speaking out on everything from immigration (the president "simply needs to man up") to ISIS and Iraq (the president's "naive".) He's also planning to announce policy initiatives on energy, school choice and charter schools later this year, Anderson said. 

An Ivy League graduate and Rhodes scholar, Jindal is a self-styled policy wonk. When he first ran for office, Anderson said he attempted to dissuade Jindal from putting out policy proposals. 

"We of course said, 'oh let’s go a little easy about it, if they put stuff out there they’ll use it against us' and his response was 'I don’t care, if you’re going to run you should put out there what you’re going to do,'" Anderson recalled. Jindal would later write more than 100 white papers during his gubernatorial campaign.

On "Morning Joe," Jindal spoke about a possible 2016 candidacy.

"If I were to decide to run, I certainly think that our country is hungry for a big change in direction, not incremental change," he said. "There's a lot of frustration with both Democrats and Republicans in both parties that all they want to do is make incremental changes."

In the last few months, Jindal has made moves on those big changes -- including an about-face on what had once been a priority for him. 

In 2010, Louisiana became the 45th state to adopt the Common Core standards, of which Jindal was a strong supporter. The Core—a set of academic standards and assessments students much learn in each grade—was first developed at the request of the National Governor’s Association, adopted by the federal government, and lauded by everyone from teacher's unions to conservatives as an educational reform that would bolster American students' educations to that of their international peers. As implementation began, some states began to sour.

Sensing the backlash, Jindal sued to repeal Common Core, calling it a federal “scheme." A judge struck down his effort with an unusually furious ruling, blaming the governor for causing "anxiety and other harm to the parents, teachers, administrations, and students in Louisiana."

Undeterred, Jindal launched another lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the educational standards violate the 10th Amendment.

When the federal government made states' participation in the Core a requirement to receive federal education funds, Jindal argues in the suit, they "hijacked and destroyed the Common Core initiative." 

"What started out as an innovative idea to create a set of base-line standards that could be ‘voluntarily’ used by the states has turned into a scheme by the federal government to nationalize curriculum," Jindal told msnbc.

"He is grandstanding -- in my view -- for political reasons, so he is well-positioned to run for president," education historian and analyst Diane Ravitch told msnbc by email.

Since opposing the Core is a winning issue  in the Republican base, conservatives have turned against the educational standards, and many of the potential 2016 Republicans have come out against it. But few besides Jindal were as enthusiastic early adopters of it.

“He seems pretty adept at jumping on issues and getting himself some visibility on key issues at a key moment. That’s always a good sign for someone who wants to run for president: the ability to see what’s in the news and figure out what your take is on it and how to get yourself in the news,” Kristol said.

Last month, Jindal offered up a playbook to fellow Republicans on how to repeal and replace Obamacare with a more affordable option (perhaps the one he’d proposed earlier this spring!), giving his party 26 pages of ammunition.

“Whether Obamacare is replaced next year, or in five years, we must have a replacement which effectively attacks and solves the biggest problem – cost.” Jindal wrote in a memo to his party obtained by msnbc, introducing a 26-page report on repealing and replacing Obamacare. The report, produced by Jindal’s political action committee America Next, aims to give conservatives an arsenal of arguments and data with which to tackle the president’s signature legislative accomplishment in the midterm elections. That PAC will likely take shape as a campaign should the governor decide to run. 

And in a boon to a party that's struggled with minorities and on immigration, Jindal is a son of immigrants and the first Indian-American to ever govern a state. He's also a football-loving, good ol' Southern boy who at age 4 dropped his given name, Piyush, to adopt a first name from The Brady Bunch, Bobby.

In the end, sources say, it's Jindal's healthcare experience and ideas that will be key to 2016.

“He knows more about health care than any elected official in the country," strategist Mark McKinnon said.

Added Barbour: “There’s no question he has real substance and depth that is obvious. If Bobby Jindal is in the race and he’s standing on that debate floor or debate stage, it’s a different debate."

But Republican analysts say he’ll need to do a lot more than propose some ideas to win his party’s affections and primary voters' support. 

A Fox News poll from late July saw Jindal earning just 4% of Republican respondents' support (while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Perry lead the pack with three times as much support.) The governor has also had years of stagnant approval ratings, though a May survey saw Jindal's numbers nearing 50%.

“He’s got to go out and present these ideas and get to know people and make certain he can raise the money," Barbour said. "But that’s a challenge that all these candidates have."

Asked about his boss' weaknesses, Anderson laughed.

"One thing people always say is 'oh, he gave that bad speech five years ago,'" Anderson said, referring to the governor's televised address following President Obama's first speech in 2009. The delivery was so flat (Google Search actually suggests "Jindal speech flop") it excited late-night television writers more than it energized the base. The New York Times reported that Jindal's "rising star" had plummeted.

"But if you go out and hear him on the campaign trail, he really is doing a stellar job," Anderson said.