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GOP 2016 Convention

Gov. Scott Walker takes selfie with his wife Tonette and son Alex, left, Monday night during first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

JOHN LOCHER — Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Just shy of a year ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stood onstage at the Quicken Loans Arena and vowed to support the Republican Party's presidential nominee, whoever it may be.

This week, he came full circle. Onstage at the same arena, he urged the party faithful to support a candidate he acknowledges wasn't his first choice — or even his second. And in doing so, he positioned himself miles apart from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Walker's second choice. 

Cruz and Walker spoke blocks away from each other Thursday morning, addressing their state delegations on the final day of the convention and each of them addressed the full convention.

Walker told Wisconsin's delegation he is backing Trump not for the sake of party unity, but because he believes it's the best thing to do for the country. He continued to frame his endorsement as a choice between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who he said is "unfit" to be president.

At the same time, Cruz defended his refusal to abide by the candidates' pledge and endorse the party's nominee. He suggested the pledge lost its validity the moment Trump attacked Cruz's wife. 

Walker was on the receiving end of Trump's often personal insults during the campaign, too. But he shrugged them off on Thursday as he has done in the past.

"I'm a big boy. I can handle that," Walker told reporters. 

But he passed up the opportunity to criticize Cruz, saying he would leave it to voters and delegates to respond. 

Instead, he continued to try and walk a line between backing Trump and attempting to distance himself from some of the candidate's more controversial comments. 

In particular, Walker was critical earlier this summer of comments Trump made about a judge's ethnicity, saying several times he was looking for Trump to clarify those comments before the convention.

The governor stressed repeatedly, both to delegates and reporters, that his endorsement doesn't mean he agrees with everything Trump has said or done — and said that's one area where he disagrees.

But Walker can overcome those disagreements to support the candidate whose last name isn't Clinton.

"One of two people is going to be the next president of the United States," Walker said. "It’s either going to be Hillary Clinton or it’s going to be Donald Trump. And I believe that it’s fundamentally unacceptable Hillary Clinton becomes president; therefore, I support Donald Trump."

Wisconsin Democrats said this week Walker's support for Trump is about his own future political prospects. The governor is "only looking out for himself," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Brandon Weathersby. 

While Walker made the case to his state's delegation to get behind Trump, he also told the room the "number one priority in the state of Wisconsin" is to re-elect Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who faces a tough challenge from Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold. 

He also focused on the appeal of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a vice presidential candidate, a point stressed by party leaders, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, throughout the week. 

"One of the best reasons to vote for Donald Trump is not just because Mike Pence is a conservative, and he is, but because he’s a good and decent and honorable man who’s been one of the most effective governors in the country," Walker said. 

Echoing points from his Wednesday night speech, Walker on Thursday argued the former secretary of state cannot be trusted with classified information, citing the FBI's investigation of her email use.

He also said Trump should be the one to select a justice to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Walker acknowledged there are still Wisconsin conservatives who haven't come around to Trump, but insisted there's "too much at stake" to support a third-party candidate or leave the presidential line on the ballot blank. 

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Later on Thursday — after an interview with the kids' TV channel Nickelodeon — he tried to make that case to Milwaukee-based conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who continues to carry the "Never Trump" banner. Walker told the Wisconsin delegation he hoped to convince Sykes to give up the fight, but instead, Sykes put Walker on the defensive in the 12-minute interview.

Another Wisconsin Republican still in the "Never Trump" camp, conservative strategist Brian Fraley — who is observing the convention from Wisconsin — said both Walker and Cruz's decisions were based on political calculations.

"Walker's conscience told him to back Trump no matter what because he sees the only alternative is a Clinton presidency and a liberal Supreme Court. Cruz's conscience led him to support Republican principles and left the door open for a future determination on how to vote in November," Fraley said. "Both candidates did what they think is best for the nation and what best positions them politically in the future. Only time will tell which calculation was correct."

Both Walker and Cruz have been the subject of speculation about future presidential campaigns this week, although Walker has insisted the only campaign on his mind is a potential re-election bid in 2018.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science and journalism professor Mike Wagner said it was "striking" to see them follow different strategies.

"Walker made an ideological case for Trump. Cruz made one that appeared to oppose Trump. Walker is likely to earn the higher marks in the postgame conversations," Wagner said.

Fraley pointed out that another former presidential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, joined Cruz in declining to endorse Trump. But Rubio, in a video message played for the convention Wednesday night, didn't tell Republicans to "vote their conscience" like Cruz did.

Fraley said he's not personally upset with anyone who follows either the Walker or the Cruz school of thought.

"However, it does sadden me to see Walker, a principled leader I respect and support, diminish himself by so wholeheartedly supporting and cheerleading for Trump. I wish he had left the pompons at home and taken the straightforward and understated Rubio approach instead," Fraley said.

"It should surprise no one that there is tremendous push to go along to get along and put party first at all costs, especially at the party's national convention," he added. "But just because I'm not surprised does not mean I am not disappointed. Trump is as eminently vulgar, ideologically rudderless, vain and authoritarian today as he was during the Wisconsin campaign."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.