For Scott Walker, the Mississippi River is all that separates him from Iowa, the state that starts the presidential nomination voting. During an appearance Saturday evening in Dubuque, the Wisconsin governor made clear to potential 2016 Iowa Republican caucus voters that he knows his way into town well, on U.S. Highway 151.
"I've ridden it many a time on my Harley," Walker said of his motorcycle riding. "I love coming to this area, whether it's Dubuque or Des Moines or Cedar Falls or Cedar Rapids or Plainfield or Council Bluffs or any of other places in this great state."
As he explores a possible bid for his party's presidential nomination, Walker's familiarity with and proximity to Iowa—he also lived in the state for seven years as a boy—comes with both advantages and disadvantages.
The northeast Iowa media market where Walker spoke Saturday was saturated with Wisconsin coverage during his 2011 fight with public-sector unions, a battle that drew up to 100,000 protesters to the capitol in Madison and made him a national hero to the right.
Photo: John McCormick/Bloomberg Politics
Union supporters protest outside the hotel where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was speaking on March 7, 2015, in Dubuque, Iowa.
Union-supporting Democrats in northeast Iowa were also blanketed with that coverage and haven't forgotten. They're promising to protest Walker as often as possible when he's in the region. Dozens held picket signs and chanted for about an hour outside the hotel where Walker spoke to more than 200 gathered for a fundraising event for Iowa Representative Rod Blum.
"Stop the War on Workers," read one of the picket signs. The protesters frequently referenced Walker's recent statementcomparing the fight against Islamic State terrorists to his face-off with union protesters in Wisconsin.
"That was an outrageous attack and slur on working people," said Bruce Clark, president of the Dubuque Federation of Labor and one of the protest organizers. "We will hound him wherever he goes."
Inside, Walker kept his focus mostly on his biography along with periodic criticisms of President Barack Obama and the possible 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
"I've watched real closely the actions of this president and realized that he and his allies, not just he, but people like his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and others, I think they measure success by how many people are dependent on the government," he said. "You know how we measure success: by how many people are no longer dependent on the government."
Walker sold himself as a bold leader willing to make tough decisions.
"We need leaders who think more about the next generation than they do about the next election," he said. "Come Jan. 20, 2017, it is my hope, not for the party, but for the country, that we'll have president who can put together a team who can't just block things, but actually get things done for the good of the country."
The governor received a standing ovation when he talked tough about taking on Islamic extremism.
"We need a commander and chief who once and for all lays out that our biggest threat in the world today is radical Islamic terrorism and will do whatever it takes to make sure our children are safe going forward," he said. "It's not a matter of if an attempt occurs, it is when."
Photo: John McCormick/Bloomberg Politics
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker meets with prospective Republican voters after his March 7, 2015, appearance in Dubuque, Iowa.
After his speech, Walker stayed in the hotel ballroom for close to an hour, shaking every hand and posing for dozens of photos. It's the kind of retail touch that Iowans expect and one that seems to come naturally to Walker.
Paul Pelletier, a non-profit fundraiser from Cedar Rapids who attended the Walker event, said he hasn't yet decided who he will back in the Republican caucuses. For now, he's torn between former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Walker. He said he finds Walker authentic.
"He's got something that a lot of others don't have: he's just a regular Joe," Pelletier said. "I'm attracted to that and I think people are pretty tired of imperial presidencies."
After speaking Saturday at the Iowa Agricultural Summit in Des Moines, Walker had flown to Dubuque for the evening event. He was just a 90-minute drive from him home in Wisconsin at that point, but couldn't quite bring himself to leave Iowa. Instead, he flew back to Des Moines for a Sunday of church services and closed-door meetings with activists.
"I'm going to be back many more times," he said. "It's nice to come across the Mississippi. I know it well."
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