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Louisiana joins neighbors by electing conservative governor

SHREVEPORT, La. - Bobby Jindal received a hero's welcome when he stopped here one day last week - and no wonder. He had just been elected as Louisiana's next governor, and he came by to say thank you to some of the people who had put him in office.

He is a phenomenon - as much of a star here as Barack Obama was when he was elected U.S. senator from Illinois three years ago. Jindal is even younger than Obama, just 36, and is just as slim and intense. An intellectual match for Obama, Jindal is a graduate of Brown University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

When I met him, he was the staff director for a bipartisan commission on Medicare, working with former Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. He had already been the director of the state health department, and he soon went home to run for governor as a Republican.

He led in the primary four years ago, then lost a runoff. But this year - after serving for a term in the House of Representatives - he came back to win the state's highest office.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that Jindal is the son of Indian immigrants, his father an engineer and his mother a nuclear physicist. He is the first nonwhite to be elected as governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction. A Roman Catholic convert, he has told interviewers that he experienced no discrimination because of race or ancestry - saying, "All that is behind us."

Jindal campaigned as a conservative reformer, saying he wanted to pass strict ethics rules for the notoriously out-of-bounds Legislature, but vowing also to spur business growth and open classrooms to the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution.

Veteran observers of Louisiana politics have cautioned that other ambitious reformers have been thwarted by the good-ol'-boy morass of Baton Rouge and the Legislature. Democrat Buddy Roemer, a previous generation's hotshot, was bounced out after one term - and his reforms went nowhere in the Legislature.

But Jindal starts his term with a clear mandate from the voters. Surprising almost everyone, he captured the governorship without a runoff, winning 54 percent of the votes against three major opponents - two Democrats and an independent. A map of the election results shows a handful of parishes voting for locally based rivals, but all across the state, from the Gulf to the Arkansas border, Jindal was the top candidate. In some populous parishes, he beat the runner-up by better than 2-to-1.

That kind of populist backing, plus a state treasury swollen with oil and gas revenues, should give Jindal real leverage as he confronts the endemic problems of a state with lagging health and education standards and serious concerns about crime.

And Louisiana seems ready for change. After the lackluster performance of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who wavered when Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, people are eager for action.

With Jindal's impressive victory, Republicans have established a phalanx of successful conservative governors across the Southeast who share a pragmatic streak that voters seem to like. They are the mirror image of the band of pragmatic liberal governors the Democrats have elected in states ranging from New Hampshire to Arizona, but concentrated in the Midwest - Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Next door to Louisiana in Mississippi, Haley Barbour, a former Washington lobbyist and chairman of the Republican National Committee, is about to win easy re-election to a second term.

In Alabama and Georgia, two more Republicans, Bob Riley and Sonny Perdue, both former businessmen, are in their second terms as governor. And in Florida, Charlie Crist, another Republican, has proven to be even more popular in his first year in office than Jeb Bush.

The common thread among them is that their friendliness to business has not kept them from attending to other needs - be they transportation, education or the environment.

It is a formula that seems to work. And, luckily for Jindal, it is a formula he is free to copy - if he wishes.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.