Leading in polls, Scott Walker waits

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Scott Walker edged closer to a White House bid this week, but his official entry into the race is still not expected until mid-July.

The Wisconsin governor’s slow-moving campaign launch could cause him to lose altitude, some observers say, since other top-tier candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are already in.

“The biggest risk is that, with every week, donors start to make decisions about who they want to invest in,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University. 

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“The voters who are paying attention now are shaping their perceptions of who’s good and who’s bad, and they are not really thinking about him as much as the others,” Zelizer added.

When it comes to donors, however, Walker’s Thursday announcement of a new “testing the waters” committee might help. The new committee has more leeway than an official campaign under election-finance regulations, and its formation crystallizes the sense that Walker is indeed moving toward a presidential run.

He is widely expected to join the race on July 13 in his native Wisconsin, the state where he has been governor since 2011. He won a recall battle in 2012 and reelection in 2014. 

An appeal from his new committee to donors suggests that they should aim to raise $27,000 by July 12. The maximum individual contribution is $2,700, so the total would be equivalent to eliciting the biggest possible donation from 10 people.

Some GOP strategists believe that Walker is being wily in holding off from a full declaration of candidacy for as long as he possibly can. Super-PACs are playing an increasingly important role in campaigns, they note, but coordination between an official candidate and a super-PAC is prohibited.

Republican consultant Ed Rollins drew a comparison between Walker and Bush, who helped start a super-PAC that is headed by operative Mike Murphy.

“You can’t talk to [the super-PAC] and you can’t coordinate, so now Jeb can’t talk to Mike Murphy again,” he said. “Walker has a super-PAC and once you declare, you have to play by those rules.”

Walker’s super-PAC is called “Unintimidated,” after the title of a book the governor published in 2013. Two former top aides, Keith Gilkes and Stephan Thompson, founded it.

More broadly, Walker supporters could issue a simple rebuttal to suggestions that he is putting an official declaration off for too long: It hasn’t harmed him so far.

Walker is performing very well in opinion polls, especially in Iowa. In three of the four most recent polls among Republicans in the Hawkeye State, he led his nearest rival by either seven or eight percentage points. The other survey also showed him leading, but by a more modest margin of four points. 

In New Hampshire, where Walker’s socially conservative outlook is less of an asset, he is nonetheless running a close second to Bush in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The equivalent national polling average shows the two in a de facto dead-heat.

Walker has made such strides while neither seeking nor attracting as much national media attention as Bush, Rubio or even candidates whose poll numbers are lower, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Walker’s participation in Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) barbecue-and-motorcycle-riding “roast and ride” event two weeks ago — he rode his own Harley-Davidson — was one of his relatively rare high-profile events of late.

Some Republicans believe that Walker’s skills are being underestimated by a news media that don't recognize his blue-collar appeal.

“What Walker brings … is the white working-class voter,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. “He has the ability to speak to them in a way that they gravitate toward. When he talks about shopping at Kohl’s, a lot of people in the media roll their eyes. But that resonates so well with voters.”

O’Connell also argued that more time away from the spotlight could assist Walker, in terms of letting him bone up on issues that he is less familiar with — notably foreign policy. 

He drew criticism earlier this year when he suggested that his fight against public unions in Wisconsin was relevant experience for the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Others note that, for all of Walker’s impressive poll ratings, the race is only in its earliest stage, and the Wisconsin governor has not yet had to face serious attacks from rivals.

“My question is, how does Scott Walker hold up when the campaigning begins, once a [hostile] super-PAC tries to define him?” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “I’m curious to see how he withstands that.”

Others note another drawback to the Wisconsin governor’s slow rollout: It could provide a window of opportunity for even more potential rivals to join a crowded field.

“The more Scott Walker waits, the more that opens the door to other governors,” said Zelizer. “Somebody like [Ohio Gov.] John Kasich is getting more interested.”

Kasich, he added, was exactly the kind of candidate who could “squeeze Walker’s chances.”