WAUKESHA — Gov. Scott Walker wants to do for America what he’s done for Wisconsin.
Depending on your politics, that’s either a dream come true or your worst nightmare.
The polarizing governor announced his candidacy for president on a hot, sticky July day in the Republican stronghold of Waukesha County.
He started his speech to a crowd of more than 3,000 at the Waukesha County Expo Center with three words: "I love America."
Starting with his years as a Boy Scout and his experiences in Badger Boys State and Boys Nation, Walker recalled an early love of politics.
He touted many of the policies he’s trumpeted in early-vote states like Iowa and New Hampshire in the months leading up to his announcement: defunding Planned Parenthood and enacting restrictions on abortion, castle doctrine, concealed carry and voter ID legislation.
Seeing the voter ID bill become law was a satisfying moment for Kathy Olszewski, co-chair of the Portage County Republican Party. Olszewski isn’t just a Walker supporter, said Portage County GOP secretary Dianne George. She’s a dedicated volunteer who has campaigned for Walker and supported him since his abandoned gubernatorial campaign in 2006.
Olszewski credits Walker for getting voter ID passed, lowering property taxes and keeping income taxes down. And she appreciates that he’s a social conservative, adding that she thinks he’s a "really honorable man." It helps, she added, that he’s had a Republican legislative majority to usher through his policy wish-list.
For someone who devoted so much energy to getting and keeping Walker in the governor’s office, Olszewski doesn’t love the idea of his term being cut short.
"We worked hard to get him in that position," she said. "But I think, probably, the nation needs him now."
Walker’s electoral record is a strong selling point among national Republicans, who see a conservative candidate who has won three blue-state elections in four years.
Walker’s wife, Tonette, joked that when he approached her about running for a fourth election, she said, "What the heck — why not?"
"Recalling the recall" is a central theme of Walker's presidential campaign strategy. It's the fight that first catapulted the governor to the national stage, when his controversial Act 10 legislation sparked massive protests at the state Capitol. The legislation curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees, making Walker enemy number one for unions.
The contempt among labor activists for Walker was best illustrated by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s one-sentence statement on Walker’s presidential bid: "Scott Walker is a national disgrace."
Hours before Walker’s announcement, state and national Democrats accused Walker of pushing policies that don’t reflect Wisconsin values. An April Marquette University Law School poll showed Walker’s approval rating at 41 percent among Wisconsin voters.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning said Walker's approval ratings have dropped in the Badger State because he has failed to deliver on the promises he made, like creating 250,000 private-sector jobs during his first term. Walker reached 55 percent of that goal, with 137,400 jobs added during his first four years in office.
But Casey Randall, of Vernon Hills, Illinois, is still impressed by Walker’s record on jobs. Until Illinois elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Randall said he had "governor envy" of the state across the border. He and his son, Alex, drove up and waited outside under the blistering sun several hours before doors opened for the event.
Randall said he’d like to see Walker work on debt reduction and job creation at the national level.
Addressing the crowd, Walker presented himself as a candidate who can fight and win at the national level just as he's done in Wisconsin.
"My record shows that I know how to fight and win," Walker said. "Now, more than ever, we need a president who will fight and win for America.
He was hawkish on foreign policy, calling for the country's defense budget to be funded at levels suggested by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and issuing harsh words for Russia, China and Iran.
He called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the abandonment of Common Core education standards, the approval of the Keystone pipeline and an "all-of-the-above" energy policy.
Although the GOP field is still wide, Walker supporters wasted no time in contrasting him with presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Rachel Campos-Duffy, wife of U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy and co-host of Fox News’ “Outnumbered,” spent most of her introductory speech making joking comparisons between Walker and Clinton.
"Scott has been married to Tonette for 24 years," Campos-Duffy quipped, pausing for effect. "Twenty-four is Bill Clinton’s favorite age."
Campos-Duffy said Walker is the perfect antidote to Clinton and President Barack Obama, who she described as “the most divisive president in our lifetime.”
Meanwhile, the liberal group One Wisconsin Now called Walker "one of the most divisive politicians our state has ever seen."
“Walker says he wants to bring Wisconsin to Washington. But the fact is he's already brought the divisiveness of Washington to Wisconsin,” said state Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee.
The site of Walker’s presidential announcement was the same place where he awaited the results of his recall election in 2012. That election was evoked by several of the speakers who introduced Walker, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
“Do you remember what it was like on that night three years ago when Wisconsin — when America — got her voice back?” Kleefisch asked the crowd.
Borrowing the chant used by union protesters, Kleefisch said the recall results showed the country “this is what democracy looks like.”
Describing the recall campaign, Kleefisch invoked David and Goliath and a “Herculean effort” by Walker.
She then told the crowd about exchanging Bible verses via text message with Walker during the recall, quoting Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me.”
“America,” she asked. “Are you ready to be vindicated?”