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Walker pairs common-man pitch with GOP checklist

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during a luncheon at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Columbia, S.C. Thursday, March 19, 2015. A conservative favorite thanks to his tangle with unions, Walker pitched himself Thursday as a leader with the experience to put the U.S. on a path to the right. The prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate won an enthusiastic reception Thursday as he recounted his 2012 recall election victory and his successful efforts to weaken labor unions for public and some private workers back home.

Wisconsin voters no longer need to wonder what it might look like if Gov. Scott Walker decided to run for president. It’s happening right now.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. There is no ‘if,’” said Brian Fraley, a former GOP operative who now owns a Brookfield communications consulting firm. “He’s going to run. He’s one of the top contenders. Of course he’s going to run. He’s building a great team around him, and he’s a steady and disciplined candidate.”

Dropping heavier hints with each national appearance, the Republican governor has yet to officially declare his candidacy for 2016. Along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Walker has stopped just short of an official declaration, playing coy with statements like “If I were a candidate...”

In the meantime, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas became the first official contender in the race, announcing his candidacy on Monday at Liberty University. And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky isn’t far behind, with an announcement expected in early April.

Walker’s pivot from state-level campaigning to the national stage began with his 2014 re-election victory speech in November and continued into his inauguration in January.

He shot through the barrier between “sleeper candidate” and “top contender” after a breakout performance at the Jan. 24 Iowa Freedom Summit. His star has continued to rise with appearances at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Iowa Ag Summit and Republican events in New Hampshire and South Carolina along the way.

He’ll be back in Iowa for the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff event on April 25 and he’ll headline a luncheon hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce this week. The governor also plans to speak at the GOP’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference, held in Oklahoma City, in May.

Early polls show Walker and Bush leading the GOP field, and the two candidates have begun to direct subtle jabs at one another as they try to distinguish themselves among primary voters.

But the same polls also show that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee, would win the general election regardless of which Republican candidate she would face if it were held today.

Early polls are just that, though — early. They don’t tell voters much beyond which candidates will attract the most media attention for the time being and where the early money from donors will flow.

Veteran political pollster Charles Franklin equates the early standings to checking the score halfway through the first quarter of a football game. The knowledge isn’t unimportant, but it’s not a reliable predictor of the end result.

And while Walker tops the presidential primary field, his approval levels at home are the lowest they’ve been since 2011, when massive protests erupted in response to his signature Act 10 legislation. The bill — which eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers — and the unrest that ensued are what first catapulted the governor to the national stage.

With the 2016 primary just a little less than a year away, talk of Walker’s rise is inevitably followed by this question: Is he peaking too soon?

“It’s clear that he’s popped up and he’s become the sort of de facto anti-Bush candidate in the way that we had 15 different anti-Romneys last time, but I don’t know that he can stay there,” said Ben Ray, communications director for the liberal opposition research group American Bridge. “There’s a real danger in peaking too early. Ask Rick Perry how that went for him in 2012.”

But Fraley argues that Walker hasn’t peaked yet — he’s still riding a wave from the labor disputes of 2011.

Without such strong opposition from Democrats and unions in Wisconsin and throughout the country, Walker would lack the “conservative rock star” status that affords him a national donor base, Fraley noted, adding that had Walker not been subjected to (and won) the recall election of 2012, he wouldn’t be neck-and-neck with Bush right now.

“Scott Walker is steady. He’s able to weather the storm because he looks at the horizon, not at the waves rocking the boat,” Fraley said. “No matter what happens in the next 12 months, he’ll be one of the last three surviving candidates in the GOP mix.”

The challenge for Walker is not so much to avoid peaking early, said Michael Wagner, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor and an expert on political communications, it’s to keep himself in the news while other serious candidates enter the ring.

As potential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ramp up their own efforts, it will be crucial for Walker to continue to develop his relationships with activists, donors and the media to maintain a foothold.

Rivals probing for weaknesses

A higher profile invites more scrutiny and in recent weeks, Walker’s detractors on the right have started to emerge.

Critics have focused less on whether his foreign policy chops are up to snuff — a question raised frequently in the earliest stages of his not-yet-campaign — and more on whether he’s “flip-flopping” on issues and pandering too much to Iowa voters. The Iowa caucuses are the first nominating contest in the presidential election cycle.

Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University and expert on the Iowa caucuses, said the flip-flopping criticism holds up.

“This is 2015, and every word you say will be broadcast to millions of people,” Schmidt said. “(There’s) nothing more disconcerting than someone whose position on issues you don’t really know, because they have different positions on the same issue. That will give your opposition in the GOP — much more, the Democrat you want to run against — ammunition to drill Swiss cheese-like holes into you.”

Walker’s rivals have already latched onto the flip-flopper narrative.

“If the shoe fits, wear it,” said Melissa Baldauff, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “There’s not a special interest Scott Walker won’t pander to to advance his political career.”

While the governor admits his views on immigration have changed in recent years, he has defended his positions on issues like ethanol mandates, abortion and right-to-work laws as consistent.

Craig Robinson, founder and editor of the influential website The Iowa Republican, suggested earlier this month that Walker’s course reversal on the Renewable Fuel Standard was symptomatic of a bigger issue. Robinson wrote that Walker was making Mitt Romney “look like a model of consistency.”

Fraley said suggestions that Walker isn’t conservative or pro-life enough are laughable, but said the governor will need to do a better job of selling his ethanol position.

“I understand how it’s not diametrically opposed to his previously stated position,” he said. “But in politics, when you are explaining, you’re losing.”

Mike Browne, deputy director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, says the “flip-flopping” is symptomatic of a bigger issue.

“I think they are missing the point if they think he’s a flip-flopper, because I think he is absolutely consistent in that this is a guy who will say or do anything to get elected,” Browne said. “That has been consistent throughout his entire political career.”

Browne said Walker not only has no compunction for changing his message to benefit his political standing, he also doesn’t hesitate to neglect his current office for the next one in his sights.

OWN research director Jenni Dye noted that Walker made a point in his recent South Carolina trip of talking about prayer and his faith, topics he didn’t focus on in New Hampshire. That’s a benign example of his willingness to adapt his message, she said.

But as a more serious example of duplicity, she pointed to Walker signing a fast-tracked right-to-work bill after insisting during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t support it during this legislative session.

“That’s not so benign, and actually goes to the heart of, ‘Is this someone you can trust?’ — whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or someone in between,” Dye said.

Concerns about Walker’s convictions were amplified among conservatives outside of Iowa after Walker’s fundraising committee, Our American Revival, hired — and swiftly parted ways with — veteran Republican strategist Liz Mair.

Mair is known for her outspoken — and often profane — social media presence. But what led to the abrupt split with Team Walker was a series of tweets from January questioning Iowa’s “first-in-the-nation” status.

Schmidt said Walker had to let Mair go if he wants a shot at a top-three finish in Iowa.

But Walker, generally a conservative media darling, is now meeting some resistance from writers and pundits on the right.

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin told Breitbart News that Walker’s “problems” run deeper than his handling of the Mair hire, encouraging conservative journalists to ask candidates like Walker “uncomfortable” questions.

“That’s called vetting,” she told Breitbart.

Until recently, Walker’s stumbles on the trail had been limited to the “gaffe” category — a CPAC speech interpreted as comparing union protesters to ISIS, a refusal to answer whether he believed President Barack Obama loves America and is a Christian — in other words, kerfuffles that could be easily blamed on the ineptitude of the “mainstream media.”

To push through to the next level, Fraley says Walker needs to do what every other candidate needs to do at this point — continue to improve.

“He needs to bone up on the basics and the nuances of any issues that aren’t in his wheelhouse,” Fraley said. “And he’s going to have to balance the demands of a massive fundraising effort and candidate dog-and-pony show with the demands of his day job. He’s broadened his team in Madison with some veterans of the Thompson administration, and I expect they’ll help a great deal. But his political enemies are salivating at the prospect of labeling him a failed governor, so he’s going to have to watch the home fires.”

The governor will also need ease up on sidestepping questions he doesn’t like — like his famous “punt” on evolution — Baldauff said. Answers like, “It’s not on my radar” or “My opinion on that doesn’t matter” won’t fly in a presidential campaign, she said.

Another vulnerability, from Baldauff’s perspective: “Scott Walker is a micromanager. That’s been made abundantly clear in the John Doe documents we’ve seen and even in Walker’s Twitter feed about his ham sandwiches and haircuts. He can’t have control over everything on a presidential campaign.”

Wisconsin: Helping or hampering?

Walker’s opponents are taking every chance to point out perceived failures like his low approval ratings and the state’s lagging job growth.

Baldauff said Walker is using Wisconsin to prove his conservative bona fides.

“He’s spending a lot of time in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and he’s making sure ultra-conservative caucus voters know he’s a 'yes man' for what they want,” Baldauff said. “But what’s right for a presidential campaign isn’t necessarily right for Wisconsin.”

Ray said he thinks Walker’s economic record in Wisconsin will trip him up on the campaign trail. The state has trailed the national average in private-sector job growth since July 2011, six months after Walker first took office.

“Campaign missteps and pandering aside, ultimately Walker’s failed tenure as governor will be what defines his inevitable White House run,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Jason Pitt in an email. “And judging by what we’ve seen the past four years, the Wisconsin that Scott Walker would bring to Washington only includes more divisive politics, budget fiascos, attacks on education and workers, and the top-down economic policies that are crippling his state’s economy.”

For a recently re-elected governor’s approval ratings to drop at the start of his second term is unusual, Wagner said. It’s hard to say what’s contributed to the governor’s 43 percent approval rating, though, he added.

Is it Walker’s increasingly frequent absences from the state? His controversial budget proposal to cut $300 million from the UW System? Signing right-to-work into law after saying he wouldn’t support it this session? All of the above?

Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, said 43 percent is a “significant change” for Walker’s approval at home — and although Public Policy Polling is a Democratic firm, PPP polls haven’t traditionally lowballed the governor’s approval ratings, he said.

Just before the November 2014 election, both PPP and the Marquette Poll showed Walker’s approval ratings in the high 40 percent range, just shy of 50 percent. And even though they didn’t top 50, they were net positive. Not so anymore.

“I don’t think standing at home is overwhelmingly important in a presidential race,” Franklin said. “But if you ... want to argue for the ‘Wisconsin Comeback’ and play up how successful your governorship has been, it would be helpful if you had a high approval rating at home.”

Franklin said he’d like to see a few more polls produce the same result before declaring a trend, but the PPP results do suggest there’s been a change of opinion in Wisconsin.

“It’s telling, the amount of Republican blowback he’s getting in the Legislature on his budget,” Ray said. “That there is bipartisan opposition to some of the things that he wants to do — it’s not just the cuts to the University of Wisconsin — you look at the additional money and additional layers of secrecy that he wants to invest in (the embattled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation). WEDC is going to be a real problem for him.”

Republican lawmakers haven’t been shy about their opposition to some aspects of Walker’s 2015-17 budget, including the size of the UW cuts.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Walker’s travel isn’t getting in the way of the Legislature’s work. Walker has presented his budget, Vos told reporters last week, and now it’s time for lawmakers to review it and consider changes.

Vos said he still meets with the governor regularly and talks with him on the phone.

“I’d say he is just as accessible as he has always been,” he said.

There are plenty of Wisconsin conservatives — like Fraley — who support a Walker presidential campaign. But, Fraley said, there are also some who may feel a sense of abandonment and others who wonder what happens to the state if Walker leaves.

“We’ve seen this before. When he ran for governor, some in Milwaukee wanted to keep him as county executive out of fear of what would happen after he left. I’d say trading (Democratic Milwaukee County Executive) Chris Abele’s ascension for Act 10, right-to-work, tort reform, the tuition freeze and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts worked out well for conservatives here,” Fraley said.

Still, Fraley added, Walker’s presidential ambitions have the potential to affect Wisconsin policy in a big way.

“The impact can’t be overstated,” he said. “It’s highly likely that Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and her team will be writing the next budget. If the GOP wins the presidency in 2016, Walker will either be on the ticket or a key piece of a new administration. Then in 2018, will any GOPer challenge the incumbent governor? That’s a fascinating scenario.”

A knack for inspiring supporters

One Wisconsin Now likes to remind people that Walker is “the most experienced post-Baby Boomer elected official in the U.S.”

At 47, Walker has spent 76 percent of his adult life in elected office. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1993 and represented the 14th Assembly District until 2002, when he was elected Milwaukee County executive. He held that position until 2010, when he was elected governor. He’s been in office for 22 of his 29 years of adulthood.

The governor has a knack for understanding what inspires his supporters and tapping into that as a politician, Wagner said.

“One thing I think he understands as a campaigner that people often overlook is that he has a pretty good feel for who people blame for problems and he’s very good at leveraging that in his messages,” Wagner said. “So, is it these huge contracts labor unions negotiate? Is it the summers off and tenure that academics get? These things are targets to help foment resentment people have for the state of the economy, their own family’s position, their own community’s health and well being.”

Walker has honed his message to focus on core beliefs that resonate with his audiences — particularly emphasizing individual freedom and a distrust of Washington.

Where he needs to improve, Wagner said, is incorporating areas where he’s less experienced — foreign and domestic policies managed by the president — into his stump speech and getting comfortable answering questions about them.

And the next time he gives a foreign policy interview, he needs to be able to answer tough questions without slipping into a narrative about President Ronald Reagan firing the air traffic controllers, Wagner said.

Walker’s soft launch as a potential presidential candidate was well-timed, Wagner said, because he solidified himself early as a top-tier candidate before many of his likely foes could do the same.

OWN’s Browne said it was also orchestrated effectively, calling back to Walker’s Iowa Freedom Summit speech.

A common narrative prior to that speech, even among conservatives, was that Walker was bland. Some wondered if his lack of a dynamic personality could be his downfall.

“I think his team did a really good job of setting the bar low enough in Iowa that he was bound to succeed,” Browne said.

The Freedom Summit was the first appearance of “candidate Walker”: no jacket, sleeves rolled up, stalking the stage while firing up the crowd.

“All he had to do was give the same goddamn speech he gives all the time, and people say, ‘Oh my god, he’s the second coming of Ronald Reagan,’” Browne said.

The strength and depth of Walker’s political apparatus, Dye said, has allowed him to excel at the game of managing expectations. She noted that Walker’s campaign co-chairman, Michael Grebe, heads the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative organizations throughout the country. She likened the relationship to a “built-in propaganda machine” for any position Walker pursues.

Ryan Frederick, secretary of the Republican Party of Iowa and chairman of the Adair County Republican Party, said Walker’s campaign thus far has reminded him a lot of George W. Bush running in 2000.

Walker made a strong impression early in Iowa, especially at the Freedom Summit. Now, he’s on his way to becoming the dominant player in the caucuses.

“Yeah, there have been a couple of missteps, but I think it’s telling that every time something’s come up so far, the reaction among the base here in Iowa has been to defend him, rather than reconsider their support,” Frederick said. “That says there’s a loyalty there, and I think that goes back to his tangle with the unions. The amount of credibility that gives him with the rank-and-file in the party can’t be understated. He may not have the field staff on the ground that, say, Perry does, but at this point that’s really the only outstanding item on that to-do list.”

In Iowa, Walker has shown that he can appeal to the party’s more conservative members, like Iowa state Sen. Brad Zaun, an Urbandale Republican, and its moderates, like Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart, both of whom recently joined Walker’s leadership team in the state. Frederick says that’s proof Walker is emerging as a consensus candidate.

Will an Iowa-driven campaign open Walker to attacks down the road over issues like his ethanol shift and the Mair debacle?

It’s something his campaign should be mindful of, Wagner said, but Walker has a built-in argument.

“I think that he has a strong counter-narrative which is, ‘When it comes to standing up to our collective enemies as conservatives, you can count on me every time,’” Wagner said. “I imagine that’s something we’ll hear from him. ‘When it comes to fighting back against labor unions or other pillars of the left, you can trust Scott Walker in a fight.’ I think that’ll be his message, and I think most conservatives think that’s true.”

What comes next?

Say “Scott Walker” in Wisconsin, and odds are slim you’ll find someone without a response. According to Marquette Polls conducted throughout the 2014 gubernatorial race, less than 5 percent of Wisconsin voters have no opinion about the governor.

The corresponding environment is such that neither side is likely to be swayed. Walker has enjoyed, with few exceptions, the unwavering support of Republicans throughout the state.

He’s already experiencing a new dynamic at the national level. More than half the country — 58 percent — either hasn’t heard of Walker or hasn’t yet formed an opinion on him, according to a March 18 CNN/ORC poll.

That can be a blessing and a curse. As he weathers more criticism and scrutiny, negative attention could be some voters’ first association with him as a candidate, Franklin said. But positive coverage, like that of his trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, will work to his advantage in shaping public opinion, Franklin added.

Another new challenge for Walker will be adjusting to criticism from other Republicans, Franklin noted. Walker has become effective at countering attacks from the left, but this will be an entirely new game.

Issues like the two John Doe investigations into his campaign and allies haven’t sounded many alarms with Republican voters in Wisconsin, but if someone like Jeb Bush raises concerns, the conservative electorate is more likely to take pause, Dye said.

One of the next major hurdles for Walker will be addressing the electability issue, Dye said. The more he plays to what the Republican primary base is looking for as a candidate, the more struggles he’ll face in the general election, she said.

Walker does have a lower viability ceiling in a general election than some of his potential opponents, Fraley said, given the visceral hatred for him among some on the “hardcore left.”

“But it’s still high enough for him to win,” Fraley said.

If Walker is the Republican nominee, he’ll be the most conservative candidate the party has fielded in decades. According to data compiled by Stanford University political scientist Adam Bonica and organized by San Francisco State University political scientist Jason McDaniel, Walker’s ideology falls farther to the right than that of his potential rivals and to every Republican nominee dating back to 1980.

The longer a party has been out of the White House, the more likely it is to nominate a middle-of-the-road candidate. Walker’s ability to appeal to moderates outside of Wisconsin will be a test for his campaign, Wagner said.

For now, the strongest argument in favor of Walker’s electability is his record in Wisconsin. He won three statewide elections in four years in a state that traditionally supports Democrats for president.

But none of Walker’s wins came in presidential years, Wagner noted, adding that he’s never had to take the Democrats’ best shot.

Still, he added, “it’s impressive that he keeps winning and by more comfortable margins.”

Browne argued that one factor in Walker’s wins is “he has not run like he’s governed.”

John Torinus, a Wisconsin business leader who has supported Walker financially and on the ballot, recently wrote a column referring to Walker’s leadership style as “government by surprise.”

“It’s almost more like ‘government by cloak and dagger,’” Dye said.

But both Dye and Browne agreed that it’s a mistake to assume Walker doesn’t have what it takes as a presidential candidate, adding that his financial network and messaging strategy are strong enough to keep him in the game.

“Before his rise to the top of the polls, I thought Walker was well-positioned because he was the majority of GOPers’ second choice — no matter who an individual was supporting, Walker was their second choice,” Fraley said. “He still has that broad appeal. The three candidates with the most loyal bases right now are Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. While I think the establishment vs. grassroots divide is a bit of cliche, I believe Walker has the ability to appeal to the donor who can write a big check and the activist who will wear out three pairs of shoes doing doors for the next two years.”

While candidates like Paul and Cruz are starting to make their campaigns official, an announcement like that from Walker is likely still months away.

“The governor has said no announcement would come until the state budget is finished,” said Our American Revival spokeswoman AshLee Strong in an email.

Still, exploratory activity could happen between now and then. And experts like Wagner say it doesn’t really matter when the governor makes it official.

“No one is unbeatable,” Fraley said. “Campaigns matter. Strategy is important but execution is crucial. The modern Democratic party selects their nominees. Republicans elect theirs. This is going to be a fascinating year.”

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.