AMES, IOWA — At a summit here featuring religious themes of unity and forgiveness, Gov. Scott Walker said his faith defines who he is as an elected official and informed his response to protesters during the polarizing 2011 debate over public sector collective bargaining.

“It defines not just who I am and what I believe in, but how I treat others,” Walker said. “I hope people saw that even at the height of when 100,000 protesters occupied our Capitol and I had death threats and all sorts of vicious attacks against me, against my family, against my children, against my parents and others, that we didn’t respond in kind. That in part was driven by our faith.”

The response drew Walker’s biggest applause at the Family Leadership Summit from thousands of religious conservatives who will be crucial in winning the Republican Iowa caucuses next year. While an estimated 100,000 protesters descended on the Capitol one day, most of them were outside the Capitol.

Otherwise, the audience response to Walker, who spoke last, was more subdued than to most of the nine other Republican presidential candidates who spoke at the event. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal received four spontaneous standing ovations including one after saying “the left is trying to take God out of the public square.”

The audience response was in stark contrast to Walker’s reception at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, when the second-term governor roamed the stage with shirtsleeves rolled back, electrifying the crowd with tales of receiving death threats during the 2011 protests against his signature law, which virtually eliminated public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

The format of the Saturday event that drew most of the 15 Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls was a sit-down interview with national pollster Frank Luntz, who asked Walker about his changing position on immigration and whether he supported an Indiana-style religious discrimination law.

One audience member said Walker’s past hiring of a staffer who was for abortion rights gave him reason for concern and asked why he didn’t come out more forcefully against a recent video showing a Planned Parenthood executive discussing the sale of fetal body parts.

Walker said the explanation was simple.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Walker said. “A lot of candidates came up here and tell you on stages like this they are going to fight for things. I’ve actually won on this. I defunded Planned Parenthood in a blue state.”

Real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, who is atop national polls, created controversy early Saturday when he said Sen. John McCain, who spent five-and-a-half years as a North Vietnamese POW, is not a war hero.

Walker, who had previously avoided criticizing Trump, and other Republican candidates denounced the slam on McCain, saying Trump should apologize.

Walker said at the event his comments about Trump were an exception to his rule of not speaking ill of other candidates “when someone goes personal and attacks an American hero.”

Trump later issued a statement calling McCain “another all-talk, no-action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job and helping the Vets.”

Trump also stumbled when asked if he’s ever asked God for forgiveness, saying he’s not sure that he has.

“If I do something wrong, I try to make it right,” Trump said. “I don’t bring God into that picture.”

The answer received a tepid response from the audience who otherwise cheered Trump’s cheeky back-and-forth with Luntz, in which he said “our country is going to hell” and “we need somebody who can bring our jobs back.”

Other candidates fielded religious questions from the audience or wove religious themes into their 30-minute discussion with Luntz.

Immigration, Iran, taxes, government regulation and welfare programs also featured in many candidate discussions.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the first speaker, closed by picking up a Bible and quoting Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson quoted Mark 3:25 saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Asked if he’s ever been wrong in his convictions, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talked about disagreeing with his parents’ decision to divorce.

“I asked God for forgiveness on the pride on my part to judge them,” said Cruz, who also received the first spontaneous standing ovation of the day for saying “we should cut off every penny of taxpayer dollars” for Planned Parenthood.

Santorum clarifies remark

Also at the event, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum backed away from recent criticism of Walker over his wife Tonette’s comments on same-sex marriage.

Santorum said in an interview with the State Journal that his comments to a conservative news outlet were general in nature, and not specifically about Walker and his wife, who told the Washington Post she was torn about her husband calling for a constitutional amendment allowing states to ban same-sex marriage while her sons support the issue.

“I didn’t make the comment about his wife,” Santorum said. “I made the comment about my wife and other politicians I’ve dealt with other the years, including several presidents.”

Hours before Walker announced his campaign Monday with his wife and sons by his side, the Daily Caller asked Santorum what he thought about Tonette Walker’s comments.

“Spouses matter,” said Santorum, who won the 2012 GOP Iowa caucuses with the help of religious conservatives. “When your spouse is not in sync with you — particularly on cultural issues, moral issues — (you) tend not to be as active on those issues.”

Walker clarified during a stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday that his wife agrees with him on same-sex marriage. He also said that he has not tried to persuade his sons to change their support for same-sex marriage.

Santorum said he hasn’t spoken with Walker since Monday, and that he doesn’t know enough about Walker to question his position on social issues.

Other candidates also avoided criticizing Walker, who has led in 11 of 13 Iowa polls since January.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor who said at the event God “can’t bless our nation as he wants to if we’re not willing to repent” for abortion, passed on a chance to critique Walker’s past statements during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign softening his stance on social issues.

“Gov. Walker’s a very capable and qualified candidate,” Huckabee told reporters. “He’ll make his own positions known just like I will have to make mine known and I’ll have to defend everything I’ve said and done. All 300-plus candidates will be required to do the same.”

Luntz said in an interview with the State Journal that Walker has a very effective message as someone who has both won elections and is a true conservative.

“Most of these other candidates have one or the other,” Luntz said.

Walker still faces some potential hurdles, namely former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s substantial money advantage, Rubio’s “beautiful presence and beautiful message” and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s grassroots support, Luntz said. But he could overcome those by winning the Iowa caucuses.

“If he wins in Iowa, he probably becomes the frontrunner nationally,” Luntz said.

On Sunday, Walker wraps up his three-day, 11-city tour of the Hawkeye State and his first week as a presidential candidate with a political event for Rep. Pat Grassley, grandson of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, and visits to his childhood hometown of Plainfield and a manufacturer in Dubuque.


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