CONCORD, N.H. — Once dubbed America's most divisive governor, Wisconsin's Scott Walker may be the biggest threat to the presidential ambitions of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
The understated everyman can fill a high school auditorium with guffaws and appreciative smiles merely by explaining how he buys shirts.
"I go to that Kohl's rack that says it was $29.99 and now it's $19.99. And then I get the Sunday insert out with that little scratch-off, and I take it up to the cash register with my Kohl's credit card. And then I take the mailer that we get because we shop there a lot. And sometimes it's 15 percent or 20 percent off. And, if we're really lucky it's 30 percent off, right hon?" he said recently, momentarily turning away from the crowd of New Hampshire Republican activists toward his wife of 22 years.
"And then we pull out the Kohl's Cash and we lay that out on the counter. And the next thing you know they're paying me to buy that shirt."
Walker, 47, can also move an auditorium of rowdy partisans in Des Moines, Iowa, into transfixed silence recounting how thousands of protesters started showing up outside his home in 2011 after he sought to weaken long-standing collective-bargaining laws for public employees to help pay for tax cuts.
"Most of those death threats were directed at me, but some of the worst were directed at my family," he said. "I remember one of the ones that really bothered me the most was someone literally sent me a threat that said they were going to gut my wife like a deer. Another time a protester sent a threat directly to my wife that said if she didn't do something to stop me I would be the first Wisconsin governor ever assassinated. The writer went on in greater detail to point out where exactly my children were going to school, where my wife worked, and where my father-in-law was still working at that time."
Combine a milquetoast Midwestern demeanor with his record of pushing through a polarizing conservative agenda, and you see a governor who wins in a swing state. He has done it by overwhelmingly uniting Republicans while also handily winning independent voters.
Now put him in a presidential election cycle where the GOP establishment appears to have its weakest grasp on the party in decades, the base is hungry for a fighter and a doer, and voters of all stripes are fed up with Washington. You wind up with Walker — virtually unknown to most Americans, untested on the national stage and lacking a college degree — leading the field by 8 percentage points in Iowa and tied for first place in New Hampshire with Bush, according to the average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Polls mean little so far ahead of the actual primaries and caucuses, of course, and Walker joined in the laughs when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe noted Walker's ascendancy at the annual Gridiron Dinner this month: "As Presidents Bachmann, Gingrich, Cain, Santorum and Trump can tell you — you can't peak too early in the Republican primaries."
With a complexion that can variously look ruddy or pale beneath his black hair, Walker looks more like your grocer or insurance agent than your president. He speaks calmly, directly, in a manner more warm than hot. The low-key demeanor belies his tough-as-nails ideological instincts in a way that supporters say makes him more broadly appealing and approachable than some charismatic conservative firebrands in the presidential mix.
Walker notes that as a high school track runner he used to win by drafting behind the lead runner and then blowing past at the end.
"My coach would always tell me afterwards, 'Scott, you know that's great but it's a lot easier to win if you're just ahead.' In our case, we're not ahead. Jeb's clearly ahead in terms of finances, name recognition, otherwise, but having shown up on the radar screen, we'll take it," he told the Tampa Bay Times over coffee in Manchester, N.H.
"More than anything what it reflects I think is that people are paying attention to what's happened in America. People notice what we've done in Wisconsin — and not just in winning three elections in four years, but they saw the big reforms we took on. They saw the protests, they heard about the threats, they saw the pushback and they said, 'Hey, this guy in Wisconsin didn't back down. He won without caving.' "
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Even in Florida, home turf of 2016 contenders Bush and Marco Rubio, Walker is making inroads. A new Public Policy Polling survey shows Bush leading Walker among likely Republican voters 25 percent to 17 percent, followed by 15 percent for Rubio. Among Florida Republicans describing themselves as "very conservative," Bush actually trails Walker, 23 percent to 19 percent.
The Wisconsin governor has made at least seven trips, mostly below the radar, to southeast and southwest Florida — a mecca for Midwestern transplants. In a state where Bush overwhelmingly controls the GOP money machine, Walker has several top Republican fundraisers, and millionaire and billionaire donors actively helping him.
Among them: former dairy company executive and Republican Jewish Coalition leader Marc Goldman of Boca Raton; Dr. Jeffrey Feingold of Boca Raton, another RJC leader; veteran Republican fundraiser Gay Gaines of Palm Beach; billionaire couple Frayda and George Lindemann of Palm Beach; oil company executive Lee Hanley and his wife, Allie, of Palm Beach; hedge fund manager Ron Santella of Naples; and insurance company executive Glen Blauch of Naples.
"Scott Walker by his deeds has shown himself to be the kind of leader that people throughout the country are looking for," Goldman said. "The problems we face have become so deep and so fraught that only someone who has proven they are willing and able to deal with the fallout and flak that comes when dealing with these problems is what's needed if we're going to turn the country around."
In Tampa Bay, Walker may be able to count on a prominent Wisconsin transplant, Ashley Furniture founder Ron Wanek of St. Petersburg, who along with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law, gave $20,000 to Walker's 2014 re-election campaign.
Gaines, who helped host a Palm Beach fundraiser for Walker this month, said she is most interested in him, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
"I want to see who's going to bubble up and see who's going to be the most exciting candidate and show the most courage," she said. "Scott Walker is incredibly brave. . . . He reminds me a little bit of Truman and of our first president, George Washington, because they just never gave up."
She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush's brother and father, and said "I love Jeb as a person" but questions whether he's the right candidate to excite new voters and defeat Clinton.
So does Walker: "I just think voters are going to look at this and say, 'If we're running against Hillary Clinton, we'll need a name from the future — not a name from the past — to win,' " he told the Times.
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In many respects, it's uncanny how Gov. Walker sounds like Gov. Bush. Walker talks about how Republicans need to "go big and go bold," and show accomplishments just as Bush used to tout his Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs. Both stress reform agendas, but Walker has recent results to tout while Bush struggles with the widely held perception that he's another moderate establishment candidate.
"If Republicans are going to win the election in the fall of 2016 we need a new fresh face, big bold ideas from outside of Washington, and someone who's got the proven track record. . . . I think that's appealing whether it's in New Hampshire, whether it's in South Carolina, it's in Florida, Wisconsin or anywhere else in the country," said Walker, using a line that could have come straight from Jeb Bush — minus the fresh face reference.
Walker is a younger, fresher version of Bush, which is helpful in a climate when voters seem to crave change. But he's also a less-seasoned version, which makes him more likely to say things that raise eyebrows — as he did when comparing the fight with ISIS to his battle with unions in Wisconsin, bobbling a predictable question on evolution or clumsily avoiding a clear stance on immigration reform.
"I didn't inherit fame or fortune from my family," Walker said in Nashville recently, highlighting another difference.
The son of a Baptist minister, Walker was an Eagle Scout who spent four years at Marquette University but took a job with the American Red Cross before graduating. He was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1993. In 2002, after a pension fund scandal, he became the first Republican elected as Milwaukee County executive. He was a budget slasher, who often clashed with Democrats in county government.
He ran for governor in 2005 and 2006, but dropped out after 14 months. He ran again in 2010, promising to cut taxes, promote job creation, reject federal money for high-speed rail, and maintain his "100 percent prolife" record. He won with 52 percent of the vote and soon was engulfed in controversy and national publicity.
In order to save state money and allow local schools and government to cut benefits and take-home pay of employees, Walker and the Legislature in 2011 significantly changed collective-bargaining laws for most public employees in Wisconsin. It was an idea that he had never campaigned on, and it quickly made him a hero to conservatives nationally and an enemy to labor and Democratic leaders.
In 2012, Walker comfortably survived a recall election, which also helped him develop a network of conservative supporters, including nearly 300,000 campaign contributors outside Wisconsin. In 2014, he won re-election by nearly 6 percentage points.
A knock on Walker — just as it was with Bush as governor — is that he campaigned as a moderate but governs as a hard-right conservative. He never campaigned on doing away with most collective-bargaining rights for public employees, but that became his signature achievement. He ruled out taking on private-sector unions, but then this year embraced a "right-to-work" bill.
He has faced considerable backlash also for seeking to cut $300 million from the Wisconsin University System, a dramatic proposal never mentioned during his campaign. And likewise, he downplayed abortion as a campaign issue but then supported a law requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortions and for abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform an abortion.
Foreign policy stands to be a top-tier issue in 2016 but Walker, still officially undecided about running, downplayed his lack of experience.
"The most important thing in foreign policy is leadership," he said. "Certainly you need to be well-versed in it, but as a governor you . . . put together a cabinet of people who are as smart or smarter than you on their issues, you take their counsel, you listen collectively, reach out to your legislative branch and others. But in the end, you've got to ultimately make a decision. That's what governors do every day."
He opposes easing the embargo with Cuba, no longer supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and said he needs to hear more about the implications of easing restrictions on drilling closer to the Florida coast.
"I come from a state where tourism plays a big role in the summer and obviously Florida has a huge part of its economy driven by tourism and I want to make sure anything that's done reflects an adherence to promoting tourism," he said.
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Perhaps the biggest political question in the 2016 Republican primary is whether conservative voters will largely coalesce around a single alternative to Bush, or splinter the conservative vote and give Bush a clearer path to the nomination.
Walker's steadiness and staying power are not yet established.
On a snowy afternoon in New Hampshire, John Bassett turned out to hear Ted Cruz talk to GOP activists and loved his uncompromising and fiery speech about "lawless" President Barack Obama. But, Bassett said, winning is the real goal, so Walker probably will earn his vote.
"We definitely need fresh blood, not another Bush," he said. "And as much as I support Ted Cruz, Scott Walker seems a lot less polarizing. He has real appeal to the common man, and that's important."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected]