NASHUA, N.H. — He has executive experience. He took on the unions. He closed a $3 billion budget gap. He wins tough elections. He’s well-spoken. He’s down-to-earth. He’s young.

Attendees at a New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit on Friday offered plenty of reasons why Gov. Scott Walker sits atop a burgeoning field of potential 2016 GOP nominees in the latest Granite State polls.

But some cautioned that while Walker may check many of the right boxes, he is still a largely unknown quantity, and as voters get to know him better they may have concerns about his shifting positions on various issues, his lack of foreign policy experience or the divisive nature of his politics.

“There’s a lot of goodwill,” said Vernon Robinson, the director of a super PAC supporting retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson for president and a featured speaker at the event Friday. “Folks don’t know a lot about Scott Walker other than he beat the unions. As the vetting process goes forward, the good governor may have peaked too soon.”

Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Walker’s political nonprofit group Our American Revival, declined to comment on polls. She said Walker would continue to talk to Americans about the principles he has promoted in Wisconsin and how he was able to win three times in four years.

Walker returns to New Hampshire for the second time in as many months to keynote a dinner Saturday at the GOP leadership summit. He is also attending an event with local activists in Derry on Sunday and holding private meetings, including with U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Also speaking at the event are declared candidates Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, plus 15 other potential candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who spoke Friday.

Walker leads poll

A Democratic pollster last week found 24 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they support Walker, 10 percentage points ahead of Cruz, and 14 points ahead of Bush. A poll a week earlier pegged Walker’s support at 23 percent, six points ahead of Bush.

Walker began to surge in New Hampshire after a breakout performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit in late January. He built on that initial momentum last month during his first visit to the state since 2012, charming Republican activists with a folksy story about buying a sweater for $1 at Kohl’s. During a question-and-answer segment he reached into the audience to don a cap from a gun rights activist.

“He’s been really well-received here,” said state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Horn. “There’s no question that Gov. Walker has taken some bold steps in Wisconsin that are very important to conservatives.”

But Horn also described the primary contest as “anybody’s game right now.”

Too early for frontrunners

University of New Hampshire political science professor and pollster Andy Smith agreed that it’s far too early to talk about frontrunners. He said poll respondents are largely reflecting what they read about the candidates in the media right now.

“He’s the frontrunner in the minds of the press,” Smith said. “Not the frontrunner in the minds of the actual voters because they don’t know any of these candidates.”

Walker this week also nipped Bush in a South Carolina poll for the first time, though only by one point, within the margin of error.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is also mulling a presidential run and speaking Saturday, said Walker’s showing so far reflects that “he’s a good candidate.”

“I feel confident in South Carolina as being a state that if I stay in this thing I’ll win,” Graham said Friday in an interview. “But at the end of the day I just think he’s got a compelling narrative and he’s a good guy and speaking his mind and speaking his heart.”

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, another potential candidate who spoke Friday, also had positive things to say about Walker’s record taking on unions. But he noted that foreign policy experience “should be a strength for the Republican nominee.”

“The Republican nominee better be able to talk the talk or (former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) will make national security a Democratic issue, incredible as that might seem,” Bolton said in an interview.

Matt St. Hilaire, 22, a New Hampshire field manager for the PAC supporting former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s potential bid, said Walker’s executive experience and status as a Washington outsider are assets, just as they are for Perry, who has experience leading a larger state.

He added that the reason Walker is getting more attention now is because he’s the new kid on the block.

“Folks who get a lot of attention early on, later on that momentum doesn’t carry through,” St. Hilaire said.

Democrats raised their own concerns about Walker during a press conference Friday morning in Nashua. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz called Walker “one of the most divisive leaders in recent memory.”

“The more voters get a close look at what Scott Walker’s actual policies are, the more they will be repelled,” she said.


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.