PLAINFIELD, IOWA — In the place where he spent seven years of his childhood, Gov. Scott Walker told a crowd how he and his brother collected coins in a mayonnaise jar to buy the town an Iowa state flag.
“That’s been fun sharing that around the state,” Walker said, raising a faded photo of the pair with the flag. “But none better than right here.”
Then as Walker shook hands and posed for pictures, a 13-year-old girl from Wisconsin confronted him about his support for a lawsuit that has blocked President Barack Obama’s executive order protecting immigrant families from deportation.
The experience, near the end of a three-day, 11-stop tour of the state that hosts the first 2016 nominating contest early next year, encapsulated the promise and pitfalls of Walker’s week-old presidential campaign.
Walker is pitching himself as the only proven fighter and winner in the crowded Republican field who also has the Midwestern roots that will help carry crucial states like Iowa and Ohio in the general election.
But he also has been a polarizing figure in Wisconsin, winning a series of conservative victories while galvanizing the opposition of unions, Democrats and groups like Voces de la Frontera, the immigrant rights group that organized the confrontation between Walker and 13-year-old Leslie Flores on Sunday.
Walker initially ducked away from the crowd when it became apparent Flores wasn’t a typical well-wisher. Then after taking a half-hour tour of the farm owned by Merlin and Janice Dietz, who used to babysit Walker as a child, he returned to speak with the girl, her father and younger brother.
Leslie Flores, a natural born American citizen whose Mexican-born parents are living in the country illegally, and her father, Jose Flores, Voces board vice president, asked Walker to remove Wisconsin from a lawsuit brought by 25 states challenging Obama’s order. Earlier this year, a federal judge agreed to block the order while it is being litigated.
“The president made this issue,” Walker said to Jose Flores, a painter from Waukesha. “I sympathize with her, but I want to make sure that going forward we follow the law in a way that’s responsible.”
Walker told Flores he wasn’t “blocking anything” by joining the lawsuit, which a Voces statement later criticized as flip-flopping. Voces cited a December 2014 press release from Walker’s office announcing it was joining the lawsuit “to block unilateral executive action.”
Leslie Flores was in tears after the encounter. “He said he’s supporting us, but he’s not reversing the lawsuit,” she said.
Earlier Sunday, Walker got attention for comments about homosexuality in an interview on CNN. Asked if he believes being gay is a choice, Walker said he didn’t know the answer.
“I don’t have an opinion on every single issue out there. To me, that’s, I don’t know,” Walker said. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Last week Walker said he supported the Boy Scouts’ previous policy banning gay troop leaders, and he reiterated that opinion in the CNN interview but also said the policy should be left up to the Scouts. The Scouts lifted the policy last week.
The event was the second-to-last stop of Walker’s whirlwind first week as a declared presidential candidate.
After launching his campaign in Waukesha on Monday, he visited Las Vegas, Atlanta, South Carolina and New Hampshire before kicking off a Winnebago tour of Iowa.
Walker’s first week of campaigning coincided with major national events, including the announcement of an Iranian nuclear deal and a shooting in Tennessee. At a Saturday gathering of 10 Republican presidential candidates in Ames, Iowa, business tycoon Donald Trump grabbed the spotlight, saying Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a hero.
Walker adapted on the stump, asking for a moment of silent prayer for the murdered Marines at the start of each speech. He also joined the chorus of Republican candidates denouncing Trump, saying he made an exception to his rule not to speak ill of fellow candidates because McCain is an American hero.
Within hours of his announcement, Walker was taking flak for calling the minimum wage a “lame idea.” There were also amusing comparisons between Walker’s campaign logo and the logo for America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses. Both turn an E into an American flag.
After his first post-announcement campaign stop in Las Vegas, Walker’s flight to South Carolina was diverted because of bad weather. He ended up missing a late-night connecting flight, and had to take a rental car at 3 a.m. Wednesday from Atlanta to North Charleston to make his first campaign stop on time.
Late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon had some fun with Walker telling and retelling the same story about discount shopping at Kohl’s. Walker uses the story to explain his tax-cutting philosophy.
Fallon overlaid multiple clips from the past six months of Walker in the same cadence explaining how a $30 shirt on the sales rack gets reduced with coupons and Kohl’s cash until “next thing you know, they’re paying me to buy that shirt.”
“He would be fun to sit next to on a long flight,” the “Tonight Show” host joked. “Maybe he can go to Kohl’s and buy some new material.”
Walker took it all in stride. Asked about highlights of the week, he mentioned going nearly 40 hours without sleep after missing the connecting flight in Atlanta. But he also cited stops in North Charleston, South Carolina, where after addressing about 250 people inside a venue, he climbed onto the bed of a pickup truck to address a similar-sized crowd in the parking lot, and Davenport, Iowa, where the scoreboard at a minor league baseball stadium declared “Iowa (loves) Scott Walker.”
“Those are all exciting things that show we’re building enthusiasm,” Walker said. “We’re going to build off that going forward.”
In Wisconsin on Monday, Walker is scheduled to sign a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks and to attend the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board meeting in Oshkosh. He then heads to Nashville, Tennessee, San Diego, and North Carolina before taking a motorcycle ride through New Hampshire next weekend.