Gov. Scott Walker vows that none of the legislation he supports this session will prompt massive protests like those that rocked the state Capitol soon after he became governor in 2011 and unveiled a plan to all but end collective bargaining for most public workers.
"We're not going to do things that are going to bring 80,000 or 100,000 people into the Capitol," Walker told the State Journal in a recent interview. "It's just not going to happen again."
But as Walker enters the final two years of his first term and prepares his 2013-14 budget, he'll be facing dual challenges, observers said.
He'll be keeping an eye on his re-election prospects in a bitterly divided state where he was the first governor to face a recall — and became the first governor in U.S. history to survive one — while seeking to build his credentials as a national conservative hero who is frequently mentioned as a potential presidential contender.
"The things that he has done in the first two years have certainly established his reputation among conservatives, and I don't think that's likely to be undermined. But it does raise questions about how he will break new ground on a conservative agenda," said Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor. "I think it is a bit of a balancing act to preserve his position as a leading conservative nationally while not provoking a backlash here in the state."
Message to GOP: Avoid divisiveness
Walker says his budget priorities in the upcoming legislative session will be job creation, workforce development, tax cuts, education reform and building transportation infrastructure. His other legislative priorities include passing a mining bill and venture capital legislation.
The governor said he has talked to small business owners throughout the state who say "right now, more than anything, they want certainty" so they can try to create jobs.
During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Walker pledged to create 250,000 jobs during his first term. Last month the governor said the state was closing in on his goal, having created just under 100,000 jobs. The specific number, his spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster said, was 86,490 private-sector jobs between December 2010 and June 2012.
But PolitiFact Wisconsin did its own analysis and found a much smaller number — just 37,011 jobs added statewide since the governor took office.
Walker now says building certainty and avoiding divisiveness is such a priority that he will push GOP lawmakers not to bring up certain bills important to conservatives, including some he may support, such as those to end same-day voter registration, restrict immigration, implement so-called "right-to-work," and overhaul the state Government Accountability Board.
"It's not a flip-flop because I'm not necessarily changing positions," Walker said. "I'm just saying in light of where we're at, in light of where we're headed, if we want to focus on creating more jobs in this state, we need to have the focus be in that area."
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee governmental affairs professor and former Democratic lawmaker, said Walker's change in tone and approach is rooted in the recall.
"People have forgotten how traumatic the recall was," Lee said. "Ideologically he's the same person, but politically he's become much more careful."
Take action, and talk
Prior to the November election, Walker was welcomed as a hero at the Republican National Convention and campaigned for Republicans across the country. Since then he has done far more public appearances in state, like on his "Talk with Walker" tour.
Walker said those stops, where he speaks at businesses and opens the meetings to the media but not the general public, show his approach will be different in the coming session.
"Two years ago, I was so eager to fix things that I didn't spend a lot of time early in the term talking about it," Walker said. "Because my frustration has always been, not just here but particularly in Washington, most politicians talk about things but never fix them."
He added that he now thinks people want elected officials who take action as well as talk with them about their plans.
But Democrats remain unconvinced that Walker is approaching the second half of his term with a new attitude.
"He's doing his best to impersonate a moderate now," said incoming Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee.
Larson said he hopes Walker and his fellow Republicans will be more bipartisan in the upcoming legislative session, but suspects the governor simply "wants to try not to draw attention to the divisive legislation that they're going to push."
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, predicted that a re-election run will not be easy for the Walker.
"I think 2014 will be a different year," he said, citing the difficulty Walker will face explaining the state's job-creation numbers.
Walker campaign spokeswoman Nicole Tieman acknowledged in a statement that the governor will be a "top target" among Democrats and liberal interest groups in 2014, but said in the recall election "voters sent a clear message that they believe Wisconsin is moving in the right direction."
"Wisconsin has turned the corner under Governor Walker's leadership," she said.
National constituency, financing
Franklin said Walker winning a second term as governor is a prerequisite to any other political pursuits.
And Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Walker is well-positioned for 2014, and possibly beyond.
"Walker doesn't need to do much to please conservatives; they are already happy with him. Working on improving his state economy is the safest path to re-election. Then 2016 awaits, potentially," Sabato said. "Conservatives mention Walker as a presidential candidate prominently and frequently. He'll have a constituency and financing if he runs in 2016. Of course he has to get re-elected first."