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GREENVILLE, S.C. — With a growing pack of presidential candidates vying for the spotlight, Gov. Scott Walker maintained his strong appeal during public and private speeches here Saturday attended by hundreds of conservative activists.

Walker, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, faced a key test in the early primary state of South Carolina, sharing the stage for the first time with candidates U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who have built momentum in recent weeks.

David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and GOP consultant who attended Walker’s event speech and a private luncheon with about 50 people, said party insiders buzzed the most about Walker and Rubio vying for the mantle of “the most conservative candidate who can win.”

“I really thought Walker was impressive on his wonkish response to issues and Rubio had the vision,” Woodard said, adding that Walker “gives you a feeling of confidence because he’s competent” whereas Rubio’s speech “underwhelmed.”

Underscoring Walker’s challenge is the fact that he’s coming under increasing scrutiny from national media and potential voters as he sustains his position as a top GOP potential candidate.

“(Walker) says the right thing, and I like most of what he’s done,” said Ruby King Gerisch, 62, a faith-based 4K teacher from Belton who is backing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “I don’t think he shows passion very well.”

In his second visit to the Palmetto State since mid-March, Walker described in detail how as the first Republican Milwaukee County Executive he reduced the county workforce and debt, while “our park system won a gold medal for the best park system in the country.”

“We knew that if we could turn a place like Milwaukee County around we knew that we could take on that kind of battle that was going to be needed at the state level,” Walker said. “Shortly after we took office in January 2011, you may have heard about it, but we did some pretty big things.”

Walker, sitting at or near the top of polls in the latest early nominating contest states, including South Carolina, has been in the national media crossfire since his breakout performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit in late January.

The South Carolina visit came at the end of a week in which Wisconsin learned it won’t see additional revenue Walker had anticipated to offset his proposed budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System and K-12 education.

Walker’s flagship job creation agency also was stung by another scathing audit that found it didn’t track whether companies that received taxpayer funding had created jobs.

Walker’s approval rating in Wisconsin has taken a hit in recent months, but the sheen remained on his presidential prospects among the crowd of largely tea party activists.

The audience burst into applause when Walker talked about the unemployment rate dropping from 9.2 percent to 4.6 percent since he took office. As he crescendoed toward the end of the 25-minute speech with calls to stand up to Iran and stand with Israel, the audience gave multiple standing ovations.

After the event, luncheon and private meetings with key party officials and activists, Walker left for a six-day trip to Israel, where he plans to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and learn about Middle East issues.

Walker is expected to announce whether he will officially seek the presidency after the state budget wraps up in June.

The South Carolina Freedom Summit was reminiscent of a similar one in Iowa that launched Walker into the top tier of White House contenders. Walker, in his trademark rolled-back shirt sleeves, eschewed the podium to tell personal anecdotes and divulge his desire to take a Harley tour across the state.

Gone was the story of death threats his family received during the 2011 Act 10 protests that drew an audible gasp in Iowa, but instead he elicited a gasp in mentioning how news earlier this year of “a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cave” is “something I feel right here,” placing his hand on his chest.

Many attendees said they liked Walker’s speech and prospects as a presidential candidate, but some raised doubts about whether he had Cruz’s fire or Rubio’s consistency on issues.

Bob Dowd, 72, a retired New York City police officer from Taylors, South Carolina, who saw Walker speak in Greenville during the governor’s two-day, four-city tour in March, said he was disappointed Walker didn’t lay out his position on immigration during the speech.

“That worries me,” Dowd said. “I think Walker is a really nice guy, but I don’t think he’s definitive enough. … He’s on the tightrope. He hasn’t unequivocally stated his position on border security.”

Linda Neiger, 65, a retired campaign pollster for several politicians, including Rep. Jeff Duncan, who hosted Saturday’s event, said Walker has “the curb appeal to win,” which is an important quality for the eventual nominee.

“We need someone who is going to be stand up and be strong enough to be able to handle it,” Neiger said. “He has that appeal.”

Walker was the first potential presidential candidate to speak in South Carolina. The event also featured four declared candidates — Rubio, Cruz and two of this week’s new entrants, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former business executive Carly Fiorina — and half a dozen other potential candidates, though not some of the bigger names like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Candidates Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also did not attend.

The event drew about 2,000 attendees.

Both the Iowa and South Carolina events were hosted by conservative activist group Citizens United, which also sponsored a Walker event at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., in February.

Walker plans to return to Iowa next weekend to attend a state Republican Party dinner alongside many of the same GOP hopefuls.

• Defending WEDC: Walker calls agency good steward of taxpayer money despite critical audit. A11


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