Scott Walker enters GOP field to high expectations and doubts

Gov. Scott Walker will become the final top-tier candidate to join the GOP battle for the White House when he announces his bid from Wisconsin on Monday.

Walker enters the race as the favorite to win Iowa’s caucuses and with high polling numbers and plenty of grassroots enthusiasm.

He is a natural fit for the Iowa contest as a social and fiscal conservative from an adjacent state. And his appeal came into sharp focus when he captivated an Iowa audience in January with the tale of his battle against Wisconsin’s labor unions.

But there are plenty of doubts, too, when it comes to whether Walker can be the GOP nominee.

He faces a charisma question and is seen by some critics as a vanilla candidate from the Midwest who lacks the “wow” factor — the same liability that capsized the GOP candidacy of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2012. 

While competing with more exuberant rivals such as Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes Rubio faces Trump-like challenger in primary MORE (R-Fla.) and Donald Trump, Walker must show he can appeal to wide swathes of voters.

He also must show he is ready for prime-time after stumbling earlier this year in national interviews over foreign policy, at one point comparing his battles with Wisconsin’s unions to how he’d take on Islamic terrorists.

“This is the major leagues and the intensity is only going to get ramped up everyday,” says GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “He has to prove he can perform at a high level over the long haul.”

A win in Iowa is the first crucial test, but it won’t guarantee his nomination. The last two winners of the Iowa GOP caucuses — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) in 2012 — have faded in the primary contests that followed.  

“He’s clearly the frontrunner and there’s a lot of interest in him here,” said Craig Robinson, the former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “But he still has a lot of work to do.”

Following his presidential announcement at the Waukesha County Expo Center, Walker will spend one day each in Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, before beginning an all-out blitz in Iowa that includes 11 stops over three days.

He’ll be traveling the state in a Winnebago – the motor-homes manufacturer is based in Iowa – and he’s charted a course that will eventually take him to all 99 of the state’s counties.

The Washington Post reports that following Walker’s initial Iowa blitz, he’ll begin campaigning in states with primaries and caucuses in early March, including Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.

Walker trails Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in polls in New Hampshire, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who Walker has said would be a good vice presidential candidate on his ticket — is believed to be setting up a firewall in South Carolina.

That raises the importance for Walker in winning Iowa and then bottling that momentum.

“He has to win or show well in Iowa,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “If he doesn’t, he’s in real trouble.”

Republicans laud Walker as a candidate with cross-party appeal, saying he has the potential to draw on Tea Party conservatives, social conservatives and establishment-minded Republicans. 

His fight against public sector unions has been front and center in his campaign.

“It’s got to be the cornerstone of his pitch,” said O’Connell. “It’s got to be his bloody rallying cry that the liberals came after him three times with everything they had and he never wavered. “

Still, Republicans warn Walker against leaning too heavily on that one achievement. 

“It’s not enough,” said Robinson. “You can’t run solely on your biography, and so far, he’s been almost solely focused on that.”

Republicans say he will need to find traction in other aspects of his record, particularly if he’s to go head-to-head with Bush.

On the stump, where observers say Walker is getting better and better, he’s begun to broaden his argument.

At the Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner in suburban Detroit in May, Walker sought to highlight reforms he’s championed as governor.

Walker said he cut taxes in Wisconsin by $2 billion, cut back on regulations, turned a $3.6 billion budget deficit into a half-billion dollar surplus, fully funded the state’s pension system and reduced unemployment from 9.2 percent to 4.6 percent, while achieving one of the highest labor participation rates in the country at 68 percent.

“We transformed everything,” Walker declared.

He has boasted about defunding Planned Parenthood in the state, signed concealed carry laws and enacted stricter voter ID laws.

He also has re-upped his fight with labor unions, signing right-to-work legislation that bans the requirement that private-sector workers pay labor dues.

Still, Walker’s record will come under fresh scrutiny. 

Republicans say he’ll need to be prepared to respond to criticism that he has flip-flopped on immigration reform and ethanol subsidies, while tacking to the right on abortion and same-sex marriage in an effort to appeal to social conservatives.

Walker will also need to put forth concrete policy proposals, Republicans say, to match Rubio and other senators who are viewed as stronger on foreign policy.

“He’s going to get pushed on this in the debates, and he’ll have to be confident and clear on his positions,” said Mackowiak.

Bush and Rubio will loom over the primaries as Walker’s top competition, and his campaign appears to be readying for a protracted fight.

After Iowa, Republicans say he’ll either be a frontrunner with a huge victory under his belt or a diminished former high-flyer struggling to hold on.

“He’s starting off with a lot of chips on the table in Iowa,” said Mackowiak.

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