DES MOINES, Iowa — Scott Walker’s stock is soaring after a triumphant return to Iowa.
The Wisconsin Republican governor delivered a pitch-perfect speech to a room packed with influential Hawkeye State conservatives on Saturday, walking them through his robust resume and ideology with a passion that surprised many.
Activists say Walker came out on top after 10 hours of candidate speeches.
“It was a clear Walker victory. He had expectations coming in here, he was on everyone's shortlist and he had to meet those expectations and I thought he far exceeded them,” said former Iowa Republican Party political director Craig Robinson. “I thought his speech was just perfect, and I thought his delivery was perfect. The delivery really surprised me.”
Walker held his own against Ted Cruz, the event’s other star. While the Texas senator always turns in commanding performances with conservative crowds, the governor next door helped himself the most by making a strong first impression with many Iowa activists who simply knew him from his showdown with the unions.
He offered something for almost every type of conservative, rolling through his record of both social and fiscal accomplishments, drawing big applause by knocking “radical Islamic terrorists” and touting legislation he backed to relax gun control laws and cut taxes.
He spoke about his faith in a natural way, and in one sentence managed to mention that he was both the son of a pastor and had Iowa roots (Walker spent his early years in the state before his dad moved to a church in Wisconsin).
Most importantly, he did it all with a folksy yet fiery delivery that had observers gushing and brought the crowd to their feet.
The biggest question surrounding Walker heading into the weekend is whether his charisma could stack up against the other White House contenders. It was a worry Walker shared — one Republican who talked to him backstage said the governor expressed concern that people would view him as “bland.” But as the strode onstage with his shirt sleeves rolled up and paced about the floor, those worries vanished.
“Walker found a way to talk about himself, talk about the country and talk about Iowa in perfect proportionality, and he did so with a style that was very easy and engaging,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “He connected to these people — you could see it.”
Iowa GOP power brokers say Walker has also performed well in casual conversations and private meetings.
“He was quite impressive in terms of him talking about specifics about what he’s done in Wisconsin and the kind of leader he was,” said Iowa Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler, who met with Walker last week at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in San Diego. “People want somebody like him who has a track record and isn’t afraid to take on the powers that be, whether that be Scott Walker or whoever.”
Walker hasn't had the luxury of spending as much time in Iowa as some of the other candidates who spoke on Saturday, thanks to his own competitive reelection he first had to survive last November. And, like every candidate, he still has plenty of work to do in the inaugural state with just over a year until the pivotal caucuses.
While he’s landed two top GOP strategists with Iowa experience in former Republican National Committee Director Rick Wiley and David Polyansky, a Texas-based strategist who was a top advisor for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), he still hasn’t hired a full-time Iowa staffer.
Some Iowa conservatives also say he needs to develop more knowledge on topics he hasn’t dealt with as governor.
“He was very personable. When the questions were about his resume he was really good because he has a pretty good resume. When the questions got into a broader context about policies beyond his resume his answers were pretty canned, pretty typical formula talking points,” said Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace, who interviewed Walker on Saturday. “It’s his first time out as a candidate but I do think he’ll have to provide a lot more substance on issues than when I got a chance to talk to him.”
But Walker made a big splash in his first Iowa appearance of 2015, stealing the spotlight from his likely foes.
“That's the first time I've ever heard him live and he was tremendous. It was a great speech,” said Sam Clovis, a conservative kingmaker and the GOP’s 2014 nominee for state treasurer. “That was something special.”