CLEVELAND — Without hesitation, former Gov. Tommy Thompson picked House Speaker Paul Ryan over Gov. Scott Walker as the Republican he would most like to see run for president in the future, in an interview Wednesday with the Wisconsin State Journal at the Republican National Convention.
Thompson, 74, a popular four-term governor and secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush, said Ryan “would make an absolute excellent president.”
“I think Scott probably would agree, Paul Ryan is the white knight,” Thompson said. “He is the general of the forces right now. Next to Donald Trump he is the next highest-ranking Republican in stature and ability and so on. I would say even higher in ability.”
Ryan is two years younger than Walker, who earlier in the week quipped that he could wait 20 years to run for president and still be younger than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Walker and Ryan have both been visiting with other delegations throughout the week, an important step in building the relationships that grease the rails for a future presidential run.
But Thompson said he isn’t sure Ryan wants to run for president. The former vice presidential nominee reluctantly accepted his new role as House Speaker and now must lead a fractured, increasingly polarized party.
After Walker dropped out of the race after 71 days in September, a trajectory that closely mirrored Thompson’s own 2008 run, Thompson said he didn’t think Walker would run for president again, saying it was too hard to run the first time.
In the interview, he had a different take, saying Walker should keep his name out there. But he said it would still be difficult given that Ryan, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — whom Thompson supported — and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are still in the mix. He also said he hoped Trump would be president for the next eight years.
A Ryan spokesman declined to comment and a Walker spokesman did not return messages seeking comment.
Thompson also suggested previously that Walker shouldn’t run for a third term in 2018 because of his low job approval numbers, which continue to be below 40 percent. Thompson noted that he advised Walker to improve his standing by traveling around the state and connecting with voters, which Walker has done extensively in recent months, though in private, invitation-only sessions.
“I would do them a little bit different,” Thompson said. “When (opponents to welfare changes were) demonstrating when I was governor, who went out there and gave them coffee?”
Thompson, who is serving as an RNC delegate in his 11th consecutive convention, also offered this year’s GOP nominee some advice for how to unify the party in his speech Thursday night.
“It’s the speech of the century that he needs to give,” Thompson said.
“I want him to be the transformational president,” he continued, saying Trump should tell America “’I’m going to make you safe in your own home. I’m going to make your street safe. I’m going to make your city safe. I’m going to make your state and your country safe. We’re going to build on what we’ve done militarily. We’re going to absolutely have you as friends, but if you double cross us, look out. We’re going to be very, very tough. We’re going to create jobs and opportunity.”
Trump lost the Wisconsin primary to Cruz, and Thompson campaigned vigorously for Kasich, but he was an early backer of Trump after he secured the votes necessary to win the nomination in early May. That stood in contrast to both Ryan and Walker, who have played more of a nuanced dance with the nominee, who evokes polarized feelings among many in the party.
Thompson defended his quick endorsement of Trump.
“I know we can’t win as Republicans without being unified,” Thompson said. “There’s no exception. Donald Trump is the nominee. If you want a Republican, get behind him. If not, get the hell out of the way.”