Scott Walker is looking to cement his status as the rising GOP star to watch at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The Wisconsin governor has vaulted ahead of most of his potential presidential competitors in recent polls to become former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) biggest early threat, helped by a raved-about speech in Iowa last month and his new moves to smash private sector unions in his home state. 

{mosads}Walker’s strengths play better among the red-meat CPAC crowd than Bush’s, and a strong performance could even put him ahead of the usual conference straw poll favorite, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). 

“The piece you want is people writing is that he’s cemented himself as one of the top candidates or first among equals,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who sits on the board of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which sponsors the event.

“[People] need to be able to walk out of that room and repeat ‘here’s the Wisconsin success story,’ [and list] three or four things that he’s accomplished,” Norquist added. 

Conservatives have rallied around Walker following a skirmish with the media for ducking what he called “gotcha” questions about President Obama’s faith and patriotism. The fight has knocked him off message for the last few days, but it hasn’t hurt him in new polls. How he handles the fight during his Thursday evening appearance will be telling.

“Blaming the media is a great applause line at CPAC, but it’s not a strategy for becoming the next president of the United States,” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, who also sits on the ACU board. 

Walker’s CPAC speech and the following question-and-answer session give him an opportunity talk about his Wisconsin record and attempt to prove to Republican activists and kingmakers that he can sustain his momentum.

“It’s a good time to refocus,” said Walker ally and Wisconsin-based GOP lobbyist Brandon Scholz.

A Walker aide says the governor plans to focus on his “history of reforms in Wisconsin” including the union fight, education reform and tax cuts, and hold his record up as an example of “how a full spectrum conservative can win huge battles in a purple state as a guide for Republicans across the country.”

The aide didn’t respond to questions about whether he’ll bring up the recent media fight or whether he’ll highlight efforts in the state to pass “right to work” legislation that would gut private sector unions, a push Walker had previously said would be a “distraction.”

Walker will be at CPAC both Thursday and Friday, holding meetings with donors and activists, and giving interviews to conservative media outlets.

The event’s annual straw poll results on Saturday evening will provide an early glimpse on how he’s doing at solidifying his conservative support. The poll can be a momentum-builder, though it’s far from a perfect test of a candidate’s true strength. The event’s audience tends to skew a lot younger and more libertarian than the GOP as a whole, and participants routinely spend heavily to bus people in and pay for CPAC’s expensive tickets.

“Those who win the straw poll traditionally have delivered a strong performance at CPAC but also fill the room with people who believe in them,” said Conway, who is running the straw poll. “You can convert or persuade some in the audience, but it’s also the legwork that’s been done up to that moment in filling a room with your supporters.”

At this early point in the 2016 cycle, Walker is doing well where it counts most: He has led three of the last four polls of Iowa voters, two of the last four in New Hampshire, both early-voting states, and he is running neck-and-neck with Bush nationally.

Those numbers mean heightened expectations for Walker as he takes the stage Thursday. 

“He’s exceeded expectations and forced people to do a double take and say ‘maybe this Iowa speech wasn’t a fluke.’ There was a process to capitalize on it,” said Scholz. “Moving through into CPAC, there is some pressure on him, now the expectations are there. … He’s under the microscope now.”

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