LA CROSSE — Gov. Scott Walker paused his busy national travel schedule to address the state Republican Party convention Saturday, framing his message around “hard work” and “proven results” while teasing at a potential presidential run.
Noting that the state hasn’t gone Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walker said to cheers, “We’re going to change that, too, by the way.”
Walker was by far the top pick for president in a Wispolitics.com straw poll at the convention, receiving support from 231 out of 317 delegates who participated. Nearly 1,000 delegates, alternates and guests were registered for the event.
“There’s a lot of people very excited for our United States if Gov. Walker were to run for president because he is a proven leader and someone who follows through on what he says he’s going to do,” said Rep. Paul Tittl, R-Manitowoc.
There were some mixed opinions in the crowd on a potential Walker candidacy, from those enthusiastic about Walker taking his policies to the national level to those saying he has more work to do here, and even some not sure he’s ready for the national stage.
And despite the overwhelming victory in the straw poll, even some Republicans said they weren’t sure about Walker winning the GOP nomination in 2016.
“It’s a natural step for him — he’s a career politician,” said Stephen Finn, 49, a licensed union plumber from Milwaukee who said he is leaning toward Ohio Gov. John Kasich for his fiscal policies and more moderate position on immigration.
Though he disagrees with some of Walker’s positions, Finn said he expects Wisconsin’s governor will be the GOP nominee because “his skills as a presidential candidate are head and shoulders above everyone else.”
Ken Peterson, 65, an officer with the Pierce County Republican Party, said he’s not sold on Walker’s experience on the national stage and is leaning toward Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I like him, I think he’s done some good things,” Peterson said of Walker. “I’m worried about his ability to put together a coalition nationally. He’s really new on the national field and we have some tested people in that pack out there.”
Perhaps seeking to win over doubters among the Wisconsin GOP, Walker’s 20-minute address mixed in many elements of the stump speech he has honed in recent months across the country as he explores a potential presidential campaign, touting his tax cuts, the state’s low unemployment, defunding Planned Parenthood and enacting voter ID.
“Imagine how much greater America could be if … once and for all we send a Republican to the White House where together as a team we can make America great again,” Walker said to close the 20-minute speech, which he gave with sleeves rolled back from a platform in the middle of the main convention hall at the La Crosse Center.
He also showered praise and encouragement on his grass-roots supporters, who helped him win election for the third time in four years last November.
“Some people might say, ‘You’re preaching to the choir here,’ ” Walker said. “Why do you preach to the choir? You preach to the choir because you want them to sing.”
Walker said “the most important thing we’ve done” in his first term in office was “we took the power away from the big-government special interests and put it back in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers,” which has been an applause line during the campaign.
Walker also heaped praise on U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, and called Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch “America’s greatest lieutenant governor,” a nod to the woman who would become the state’s first female governor should Walker be elected president in November 2016.
Nik Nelson, 26, a GOP political consultant and owner of OpenBox Strategies, said both Walker and Kleefisch received a rock star reception at the convention, helping warm up party members to the possibility that she could be the next governor.
“She’s someone who’s grown into that role,” Nelson said. “She could have been a placeholder, but she’s grown into so much more than that.”
Walker attended private convention events on Friday night. After his speech, Walker attended a fundraiser and a dinner featuring several presidential candidates in Iowa.
Kleefisch also addressed the convention just before Walker. She asked audience members to raise a hand if they love that Walker has cut their taxes by $2 billion. She also pumped up Walker’s budget proposal, which has come under fire from Democrats — and even some Republicans — in the Legislature and which polling shows lacks support from the public on key elements, such as spending cuts to K-12 and higher education.
“You are going to see tax relief for the next two years,” she said. “That is our renewed commitment to you.”