CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — On his first day as a presidential candidate in this must-win state, Gov. Scott Walker offered a glimpse of his “big, bold” national agenda, calling for changes to Social Security, phasing out wind power subsidies, and easing gun bans at military recruiting centers.

“The federal law that prohibits our heroes, our men and women in uniform, from being armed in places like this recruiting center needs to be changed,” Walker said in response to a question about how to curb gun violence. The answer was in reference to Thursday’s shooting death of four Marines in Tennessee, including one from Wisconsin. At all three of his Iowa stops Friday, Walker asked for a moment of prayer for the victims.

Walker kicked off his three-day tour of the state that holds the first presidential nominating contest at a Davenport minor league ball park along the Mississippi River where the scoreboard proclaimed that “Iowa loves Scott Walker.”

There was good reason to think so Friday as more than 250 people crammed into each of his three events. The visit is only his seventh to Iowa this year, far fewer than many other Republican contenders.

But that hasn’t hurt him so far. Walker has led 11 of the 13 Iowa polls since his breakout performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit in late January. The latest average on Real Clear Politics gives him an eight-point lead over his closest competitors.

Josh Putnam, a political scientist who studies the primary schedule, said there is pressure for Walker to win Iowa if he wants to win the Republican nomination.

“Given who he’s likely going to be competing against, (former Florida Gov. Jeb) Bush and (Florida Sen. Marco) Rubio primarily, it’s incumbent upon him to win in Iowa just to prove that he can win and get off to a good start,” Putnam said.

Walker made stops in the other early primary states of Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire after his Monday campaign announcement in Waukesha, where he portrayed himself as a fighter and a winner.

Walker continued to weave the fighter/winner theme into his Iowa speeches, dividing the other Republican candidates into fighters who haven’t won and election winners who have not fought tough battles. “What I believe makes us unique is that we’ve done both,” Walker said.

Asked whether expectations for a win in the Iowa caucuses are so high that a second-place finish would be a disappointment, Walker talked about running track at Delavan-Darien High School.

“I had plenty of victories where I came from behind,” Walker said. “I had others where my coach used to say it’s easier to win if you’re ahead. But in the end there’s a lot of time and a lot could happen by then.”

After the Davenport event, Walker, his wife Tonette, and sons Matt and Alex, boarded a Winnebago painted red and blue with white lettering proclaiming “I’m for big bold reforms!”

At the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, with his shirtsleeves rolled back and a sheen of sweat on his brow from a sweltering full house, Walker fielded questions from the audience during a 25-minute town hall meeting.

Asked first about how he would improve the economy, Walker laid out a five-point plan, including repealing Obamacare, putting a moratorium on new business regulations, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, supporting education and job training, and cutting taxes for individuals and businesses.

How to reduce gun violence? In addition to allowing military personnel at recruiting centers to carry firearms, he advocated giving more training and support to law enforcement and strengthening two-parent households.

Common Core? He’s against it and wants to send the U.S. Education Department’s funding back to the states and local governments.

Social Security? Walker said he’s not going to touch it for those already receiving benefits or about to enter retirement age.

“For my generation, we’re going to have to make some changes,” said Walker, 47, though he didn’t offer specifics.

Robin Tucker, 51, a real estate agent from Cedar Rapids and Green Bay Packers fan who came to see Walker for the third time in recent months, was less interested in policy, asking Walker what he would do to end partisanship in Washington.

Walker, whose tenure as Wisconsin governor has been marked by a wave of conservative victories but also complaints he’s polarized voters, said it’s all about leadership.

“People want leaders who are going to say what they’re going to do and then go out and do it,” Walker said. “We need a leader who’s not going to pit one group of Americans against another.”

Afterward, Tucker said Walker is “certainly worthy of strong consideration.” He got a kick out of Walker’s closing anecdote about discount shopping at Kohl’s, which he used to explain his tax-cutting philosophy. He also likes his executive experience in both the governor’s office and at the local level.

“He’s got a lot of things that I can relate to and that’s intriguing,” Tucker said.

As he shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures at the final stop Friday at his state campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Walker gave a bear hug to Dixie Watters, a homemaker from Des Moines, as she assured him, “We’re going to take Iowa.”

“Twice,” Walker said, referring to the general election. “Twice.”

On Saturday, Walker heads to the western edge of the state for events in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Carroll before an evening speaking slot at the Family Leadership Summit at Iowa State University in Ames, where nine other GOP candidates are scheduled to speak. He wraps up Saturday with a cookout at JD Heil Farms in Haverhill.

On Sunday, he speaks in Cedar Falls at an event for state Rep. Pat Grassley, grandson of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. He then revisits childhood friends in Plainfield, where he lived as a child, before wrapping up the 11-stop tour at Giese Manufacturing inDubuque.


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