DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Scott Walker found a familiar foil — and, he hopes, a reset moment for his scuffling presidential campaign — on the soggy grounds of the Iowa State Fair Monday.
A confrontation with protesters delighted the largely supportive crowd that gathered to hear Walker speak at the fair.
Walker, who slipped in recent polls after the first presidential debate, also found a new focal point for his frustrations Monday: fellow Republicans who he said haven’t stood up to Democrats.
The Iowa State Fair, the annual summertime salute to the state’s agricultural heritage, long has been a proving ground for candidates seeking to make their mark ahead of its first-in-the-nation presidential contest.
In Walker’s case, it was a forum for one of his campaign themes: that he isn’t cowed by opposition.
A group of protesters, many from the Service Employees International Union, shadowed Walker to the fair.
While Walker was speaking, protester Matthew Desmond held up a sign inches from his face that read, “Warning: Don’t let Scott Walker do to America what he did to Wisconsin.”
Walker looked down at Desmond and responded with uncharacteristic emotion.
“I am not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there!” Walker exclaimed to cheers, pointing at Desmond.
“This is what happened in Wisconsin,” he continued to shout. “We will not back down!”
The Des Moines Register identified Desmond and another protester, Khalil White, both of Chicago. Video of the incident shows another member of the crowd lunging at Desmond from behind and ripping his sign in half.
An SEIU spokesman said the protesters Walker confronted aren’t affiliated with the union.
Speaking later to reporters, Walker singled out Republican congressional leaders for criticism along with Democratic President Barack Obama.
He emphasized that he confronted many in his own party when restricting collective bargaining in Wisconsin and called on GOP Senate leaders to vote to repeal Obama’s health care law. Walker is set to unveil a plan for repealing and replacing the law in an appearance on Tuesday in Minnesota.
“I didn’t just challenge unions or Democrats. There were many in my party who did not want to do the big, bold reforms that we did” in Wisconsin, Walker said. “We said, ‘We’re going to do it. That’s why people elected us.’”
The Hawkeye State long has been central to Walker’s presidential plans. He led Republican caucus polls here for much of 2015 but surrendered the frontrunner position after the first presidential debate earlier this month.
A recent CNN/ORC poll showed Walker running third in Iowa behind businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. A Fox News national poll released Sunday showed Walker tied for fifth nationally with 6 percent support, with Trump in the lead.
Walker said Trump and other political outsiders are surging as “a matter of a protest.”
“I’ve talked to Americans all across this country who say, ‘I may not end up voting for this candidate, but I’m going to say in the polls that I’m for them, because I’m tired of politicians in Washington not listening to me,’” Walker said.
While Walker eagerly confronted protesters and congressional Republicans, he shied from a question he was asked repeatedly Monday: what he would do with the 11 million people who are living in the U.S. illegally.
Trump has made immigration his top issue, proclaiming that those living in the U.S. illegally “have got to go.” Trump has yet to offer a plan for how to deport 11 million people.
Walker wouldn’t elaborate Monday on where he stands, other than to say he would secure the border and oppose “amnesty.” Walker dismissed calls to detail his position as emanating from “the media.”
“The media here and elsewhere want to talk about several steps down the way,” Walker said. “Until they actually secure the border and enforce the laws – you do that, we’ll talk about what the next steps are.”
Fair-goer Jenny Turner of Burlington, Iowa, was among those who questioned Walker on the subject. Turner said she likes Walker’s record as Wisconsin governor but wishes he would have gotten more specific on immigration.
“I asked him, ‘What are you going to do about the people who are already here?’” Turner said. “Trump said they gotta go.
“He (Walker) didn’t use that language.”
The Washington Post and MSNBC reported Walker said he supports ending birthright citizenship — which guarantees citizenship to everyone born in the U.S. — as Trump has proposed. Doing so would require amending the U.S. Constitution, which provides that right.
Some came to the fair to give Walker a piece of their minds.
Ciara Fox of Milwaukee was one of the SEIU protesters who attended. She repeatedly shouted at Walker during a press conference he held after his speech — asking him, among other things, to explain why he failed to deliver on his 2010 pledge to create 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsinites don’t support you!” Fox exclaimed at Walker as he concluded the press conference. “You’ve got us paying for a stadium! ... What about education?”
Barbara Kenney counted herself lucky to shake Walker’s hand. A farmer from Nevada, Iowa, Kenney wore a Carly Fiorina sticker but said she’s also considering supporting Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Kenney said Walker’s unwavering approach to his opponents is a big part of his appeal.
“I’ve been impressed when he went through the recall and won,” Kenney said. “There’s just so many Democrats in Madison.”