Scott Walker may have won three elections in the past four years, but he's still finding his way in presidential politics.
The Wisconsin governor made a splash last month in first-to-vote Iowa, marching on stage in shirt sleeves to wow Republicans and vault to the top of several still-way-too-early polls.
Then came "punts" on questions about evolution, President Barack Obama's love of country and the president's religion. This week Walker compared his political fight against union protesters to America's actual fight against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.
"Take your worst day in any state capital around the country, and every day is like that on a presidential campaign," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a senior adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
"The media scrutiny is brutal, the parsing of every quote never ends and all of your opponents — whether they're from the other party or even inside your own — has staff solely dedicated to ruining every one of your events or interviews," Madden said.
While Walker has yet to formally announce a White House bid, other Republicans likely to run already view him as a threat in the unofficial race to emerge as the strongest alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early favorite of the party's establishment. Walker's newly formed political action committee opened a national headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, a few days ago, and several key aides are slated to move to town next week.
"We need new, fresh leadership," the 47-year-old Walker said Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington. "Most importantly, we need leaders who have the courage to not just talk about it, to not just fight for it, but to actually win those fights for the hardworking taxpayers."
Walker's weekend of presidential politicking continues Saturday, when he speaks in Florida to the anti-tax group Club for Growth, an event where some of his 2016 competitors are also on the agenda.
Walker's candidacy will be predicated in large part on his actions as Wisconsin's governor to strip the collective bargaining rights of state workers during his first term, and then win a recall election and then re-election despite the determined efforts of organized labor and Democrats to boot him from office.
But while the battle with labor and those subsequent elections put Walker in an intense spotlight, it's one that doesn't compete with what he'll face in the next year during the Republican primaries. And his early steps as a top-tier presidential contender have been marked by stumbles.
The latest came on the first day of the CPAC conference, in the midst of an energetic speech that seemed to quash any lingering concerns Walker is too bland for presidential politics. Having again shed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, as he did during his January appearance before conservatives in Iowa, he was nearing the end of his appearance when he was asked about the Islamic State group.
"If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," he said.
The remark was quickly followed by a clarification from Walker's still-new staff, who said he didn't compare the protesters who spent weeks camped out in Madison in 2011 to the militants. But the criticism of those who believe he did just that lingered into the next day, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka saying Walker's "judgment is impaired."
Aides to other likely Republican candidates made sure reporters didn't miss Walker's comments, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry piled on publicly.
"You are talking about, in the case of ISIS, people who are beheading individuals and committing heinous crimes, who are the face of evil," Perry said on MSNBC. "To try to make the relationship between them and the unions is inappropriate."
Earlier in the month, Walker refused to say whether he believed in evolution during a trip to London. A week later, he struggled to answer questions about Obama's patriotism and religion, saying he didn't know whether the Democratic president loves America or is a Christian.
Taken together, those missteps have become a storyline that Democrats are already using to raise money.
"When Scott Walker steps to the microphone, something incredibly offensive is going to come out of his mouth," the pro-Democrat group American Bridge said in a fundraising message sent Friday. "It happens every single time."
Influential Republicans who view Walker as a serious contender for the 2016 nomination described his awkward statements as rookie mistakes from which he'll recover as he gains experience on the national stage. In the meantime, they say, he needs to focus on telling the story of his time in Wisconsin.
"He has an incredible record of achievement," said Fred Malek, a prominent Republican fundraiser who has encouraged Walker's national ambitions. "Anything he says that takes him away from that is not productive."
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