With half a lifetime of political experience under his belt, Gov. Scott Walker is a master of misdirection. But as a newly announced presidential candidate, the spotlight on the two-term Republican governor is brighter than ever.
That means even the most subtle shift in tone or rhetoric — backtracking on a statement or omitting a policy position from a speech — becomes subject to analysis.
"The level of scrutiny that Walker is getting and will get is just not going to be like what he's had to deal with anytime previously in his career," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
That heightened scrutiny was on display on Thursday in New Hampshire, where Walker was asked by reporters whether he was concerned he might hurt his standing by weighing in on social issues.
Walker in April said if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country, he would support a constitutional amendment to allow states to ban it if they so choose. He reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment the day the court issued its ruling, but hasn't mentioned it in speeches since then. In the weeks that followed, several media outlets reported that Walker's sons were disappointed in his comment.
On Tuesday, the day after officially announcing his presidential candidacy, Walker was asked by the conservative website IJ Review about the Boy Scouts' decision to lift its ban on gay troop leaders and employees. Walker, who had refused to weigh in on the topic in 2013, said he "support(s) the previous membership policy because it protected children and advanced Scout values."
But the following day, he backed away from that statement, saying he didn't mean physical protection, and the decision is one best left to the Boy Scouts.
Also on Wednesday, Walker discussed an ad he ran during his 2014 re-election campaign that described the decision to end a pregnancy as "an agonizing one."
"That’s why I support legislation to increase safety and to provide more information for a woman considering her options," Walker said, looking directly into the camera. "The bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor. Now, reasonable people can disagree on this issue. Our priority is to protect the health and safety of all Wisconsin citizens."
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham asked Walker: "But you don't believe — I just want to clarify this, governor ... you don't believe the final decision should be between a woman and her doctor—"
"No," Walker replied. "I believe it's an unborn child. My point was, in pointing that out, is the bill, all it does, is require an ultrasound. It didn't change what the law is."
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said that interview demonstrated that Walker is "setting himself apart as the most craven political opportunist" among the field of Republican presidential contenders.
But Walker, on Thursday, said he's only talking about social issues because he's applying for the job of president. In that process, an applicant answers a prospective employer's questions, but also tries to focus on his or her priorities, he said.
"Those (social issues) aren't what I'm running on," Walker told reporters. "It's just the unique thing that people are surprised about is I actually answer questions ... It's a little unusual. It took a while for my media, press corps in Wisconsin to get used to the fact that I actually answer questions and speak the truth, and I'm going to keep doing that across the country."
Those small zig-zags, along with a few staffing issues — the resignation of strategist Liz Mair after Iowans objected to her past comments about the state's caucuses and Walker distancing himself from Brad Dayspring, a controversial hire made by the Unintimidated PAC — are among a handful of "minor, penny ante mistakes" made by Walker or his camp in recent months, Kondik said.
He also pointed to a phone call the conservative economic writer Stephen Moore said he'd had with Walker, only to tell the New York Times several days later that he had "misspoken" and the call never happened.
"Walker needs to prove to party leadership that he does have enough polish to win," Kondik said. "I think the establishment is watching all that stuff, and I don't think those little problems go over well with them."
Kondik noted that Walker made no mention of same-sex marriage during his announcement speech — demonstrating that he was focused on appealing to a national audience, not one of Iowa or South Carolina caucus and primary voters.
He also pointed to Walker's shifts in tone from his gubernatorial re-election campaign to his presidential bid. During the campaign, the governor avoided being pinned down on questions about a 20-week abortion ban — which he has since promised to sign — and a right-to-work law — which he signed in March.
"This is part of being in the national media sphere now," Kondik said. "It's easier to get away with different messages to different groups in state politics, because there just aren't as many people paying attention. (State reporters) report all this stuff, but you don't have 15 primary challengers trying to jump on every misstatement."
But in the time that Walker has been running for president — officially since Monday, and unofficially for months — he's shown enough inconsistencies to provide some ammunition for his opponents.
"The old Karl Rove playbook was, find your opponent's biggest strength and try to break it down," Kondik said.
For Walker, it's the name of his autobiographical book and the PAC formed to support him: he's "Unintimidated" and uncompromising.
"His whole point is that he's a strong leader who faced down the left and won, and it's a fairly compelling narrative," Kondik said. "But all of these seeming inconsistencies — making a statement one day, having to backtrack on it, hiring someone and having to fire them later — all of those little stories chip away at the idea of him being uncompromising."
"A lot of these things are small, but you put them together, and again, it gets at the question: Is Walker ready for primetime? There is some indication that he's not," Kondik said.