NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Gov. Scott Walker told thousands of conservative activists Thursday that his experience standing up to 100,000 protesters in 2011 has prepared him to face the threat posed by Islamic State terrorists.

“I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil,” said Walker, a likely Republican 2016 presidential candidate. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

The remark, which Walker made at the Conservative Political Action Conference, brought swift condemnation — including from some conservatives and many of the same protesters who demonstrated against his anti-union Act 10 legislation in 2011.

“To compare the hundreds of thousands of teachers, students, grandmothers, veterans, correctional officers, nurses and all the workers who came out to peacefully protest and stand together for their rights as Americans to ISIS terrorists is disgusting and unacceptable,” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said in a statement. “Coming together to peacefully protest for freedom, to raise your voice for a better Wisconsin, this is not an act of terror.”

Walker immediately sought to clarify his comments as he shuttled between media interviews after the speech. His political nonprofit group also issued a statement.

“Let me be perfectly clear: I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling this difficult situation is the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with,” Walker told reporters. Asked if he regretted the statement, he said, “No.”

“You all will misconstrue things the way you see fit,” he said. “That’s the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there’s any parallel between the two.”

Marquette Law School political science professor Charles Franklin said Walker “may have crossed the line” by linking international affairs and union protests. “But it’s not a brand new thing for him to connect toughness in Act 10 and toughness in international affairs.”

Walker has also previously cited President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers as one of the most powerful foreign policy decisions he made, Franklin said.

Despite the attention to Walker’s comments on protesters, CPAC attendees gave Walker numerous standing ovations and by the end many were chanting, “Run, Scott, run.”

Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, by contrast, said Walker’s comments suggest he “is even less qualified for president than I thought.”

‘Campaign speech’

Walker spoke for about 15 minutes, including taking questions from a moderator. He talked about the awe he experienced in visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia as a child.

“Let this be the time when we can tell future generations what we did to make America great again,” Walker said.

A protester interrupted the speech after Walker touted how next week Wisconsin will become the 25th state in the country to enact a right-to-work law.

“Apparently the protesters come from Wisconsin as well,” Walker said. “Those voices can’t drown out the millions of voices that want us to stand up for the hardworking taxpayers.”

Linda Trausch, 59, a financial administrator from Cleveland, said she was eager to see Walker speak live because he hasn’t been very animated when on television.

“I was very pleasantly surprised by how he spoke,” Trausch said. “The things he said, I felt like that was a campaign speech.”

Walker was the fifth potential presidential contender to speak at CPAC on Thursday and was immediately followed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Others who spoke earlier included New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

On Friday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak in addition to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Some 10,000 conservative activists from across the country were expected to gather at the 42nd annual event, just outside Washington, D.C.

Walker is scheduled to speak at another CPAC event Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. CST. He then heads to Palm Beach, Florida, to attend a Club for Growth meeting Saturday.

Before Walker’s speech, Joe Buzard, president of the Young Conservatives of America chapter at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, said he was excited to see the Wisconsin governor speak for the first time.

“He seems like this generation’s Reagan,” Buzard said. “He can speak to the most prominent endorsements and yet turn around and talk to the everyday guy without having to put on an image.”

Early momentum

Walker entered CPAC on top of recent polls gauging 2016 GOP contenders. In the latest national poll he received 25 percent support, and in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest, he has opened up a double-digit lead. When asked whether the frontrunner label applies to Walker, Carson said: “Sounds pretty good.”

Walker rose to the top tier of presidential contenders after a rousing speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit last month, when expectations for his performance on a national stage were limited. At CPAC, his speech was eagerly anticipated.

He mentioned defunding Planned Parenthood and signing concealed carry legislation, but left out other staples of his stump speech. Walker has criticized the media in recent weeks for asking what he has deemed “gotcha” questions, such as his position on evolution and whether he thinks President Barack Obama loves America or is a Christian. Walker passed on those questions, which drew derision from some pundits.

He didn’t offer a direct answer when asked during the event whether he supports raising the minimum wage. Instead he gave the answer he provided during his last gubernatorial election. “We need to talk about lifting up people,” Walker said. “I’ll let the left worry about how low the wages should be.”

He also didn’t offer a specific response to a question about whether the federal government should regulate the Internet like a utility, known as net neutrality. “We’ll talk about that should I choose to be a candidate,” Walker said. “The guiding principle should be freedom.”

Bob and Sally Campbell, a retired couple from Clover, South Carolina, echoed a popular view among attendees that Walker’s actions in Wisconsin, such as cutting taxes and standing up to public employee unions, would be appealing at the national level.

“I was impressed,” Bob Campbell said. “He touched all of the things I feel are important in terms of the character of a president.”

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