Scott Walker might be soaring in the polls, but some Republicans are afraid the glare of the newfound spotlight is exposing worrisome cracks.
The potential presidential candidate has made a number of missteps in recent weeks, dodging some questions and giving answers to others that have left some Republicans wondering about his depth of knowledge on a range of topics he hasn’t dealt with as governor of Wisconsin.
While strategists say none of his mistakes have done long-term damage, many are prodding him to hit the books, before he makes one that does.
“He has to tighten up his message and bolster his foreign policy credentials quickly,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “Now’s the time you can learn from some of those stumbles.”
Walker got thunderous applause for his Thursday speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and claimed second place in the presidential straw poll. But Democrats pounced on him for comparing his fight against unions to his ability to combat Islamic terrorists, and his campaign was forced to clarify the remarks.
At a Club for Growth meeting with top GOP donors just days later in Florida, he faced criticism for lacking details in some of his policy answers.
The next day, his comment in a Fox News interview that his “view has changed” on allowing illegal immigrants a path to legalization opened him up to charges of flip-flopping on the topic.
The rapid series of missteps come on the heels of other headaches for Walker aides. The governor faced criticism — including from some of his allies — for refusing to answer questions about President Obama’s patriotism and religion, and for saying he’d “punt” when asked if he believed in evolution.
The Club for Growth meeting in particular highlighted a number of potential concerns for Walker going forward.
His comment that the “most significant” national security decision in his lifetime was when President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike left some in the crowd scratching their heads, though his point was that Reagan had shown the mettle he’d need to take on the USSR.
And his vague answer on a question about Wall Street regulations led to an incredulous follow-up from his interviewer, a backer of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? MORE (R-Ky.), who asked if he was “just not that aware of what’s happening with Dodd-Frank,” according to those in the room.
National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote that, after both the Club for Growth event and CPAC, he’d heard from Republicans that the Wisconsin governor “is peaking too soon.”
“Walker is in danger of being the guy known for not having a good — or any — answer to tough questions. That’s particularly poisonous for him, given that he is running on leadership and truth-telling,” wrote Goldberg.
Club for Growth President David McIntosh said Walker was warmly received at the event, which also featured a number of other likely presidential contenders, and said that many of the group’s heavy-hitting donors “gave him a pass” — for now — to catch up on some policy details.
But McIntosh admitted he’d had “several people tell me they wanted more detail” from the governor.
“He acknowledged he was still getting up to speed on some issues, and here are his principles,” McIntosh said. “My sense in talking to his team is he has plans to do some pretty intensive economic briefings with experts to take his issues from state to federal issues.”
Walker’s team paints the stumbles as minor missteps from a candidate who has been thrust into the spotlight, pointing out that the intense attention he’s receiving is because he has rapidly emerged as the front-runner.
“The reason he’s getting this kind of scrutiny now is because of his success,” said one Walker adviser.
Those close to Walker privately admit that no one expected him to shoot to the top of the polls so quickly following a hugely popular speech in Iowa last month, and they’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since. He’s still hiring top staffers, and the hope is that, once the campaign is fully operational, the problems will go away.
“They didn’t even bring on the foreign affairs policy person until this week. The domestic person was three weeks ago. So what you do is you live off the substance that is there in the candidate [for now],” one Walker ally said late last week.
But strategists say Walker doesn’t need only more policy details and a more robust staff, but also to learn message discipline.
Some of his off-the-cuff remarks hint that he needs to be more careful in his answers, such as his declaration during CPAC: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” and his refusal to say whether he believes Obama is a Christian the week before.
“It’s when he’s unscripted and not thinking about answers that it’s been a problem,” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.
Walker’s team seems to recognize he needs to cram on policy. He spent hours during a Washington trip in late February meeting with foreign policy thought leaders. He’s also met with some former secretaries of State in recent weeks to bone up on international affairs.
Walker hasn’t made any fatal mistakes and has plenty of time to rebound before voting begins in January 2016.
But Republican strategists reiterate he needs to tighten up his message now or risk a tumble from the top of the polls.
“People are giving him a break because of how fast he was put into this situation, but he’s going to have to cram on [foreign policy] and a myriad of other policy issues now that he’s close to the front of the pack.” said Bonjean. “If Gov. Walker is making these mistakes this time next year I don’t think people will be very forgiving.”