Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's energetic speech Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference infused his potential 2016 presidential bid with fresh momentum among the Republican Party’s grassroots activists.
Wearing a blue shirt with its sleeves slightly pushed up and a ruby-red tie, Walker appeared at ease in front of a packed ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, and from the start found a warm reception from the crowd of rank-and-file Republicans and college students.
Describing himself as the “son of a small-town preacher,” Walker touted his blue-collar roots and said he did not have a chance to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia until he was an adult.
Without mentioning former Florida governor Jeb Bush by name, Walker presented a contrast with the son and brother of former presidents, who is scheduled to speak Friday at CPAC and has struggled to connect with some conservatives at this early stage of the race.
“We didn’t have the money to go to historic sites,” Walker said, smiling tightly, as heads nodded understandingly throughout the room.
But veiled populism was not the core of Walker’s speech, which was delivered with vigor and often a raised voice. Instead, Walker turned his attention to a litany of issues that have long animated the Republican base: spending on social welfare programs, terrorism, Israel, and abortion.
“How many people are no longer dependent on government,” Walker said, should be the measure of success in governing, rather than participation.
On social issues, Walker said he has worked to block funding for Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin and signed antiabortion policies into law.
He knocked President Obama’s administration for not showing appropriate “respect” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who plans to address Congress next week.
And he called “radical Islamic terrorism” a “threat to our way of life” -- and a threat he could confront, should he win the White House.
“If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” Walker said, referencing his fight against public-employee unions in his state, “I can do the same across the world.”
The most memorable moment perhaps came when Walker discussed the “right-to-work” legislation that is heading toward passage in Wisconsin’s state legislature. As Walker spoke, a protestor began to heckle Walker from the audience. Walker paused, looked toward the man and said, “Apparently protestors come from Wisconsin as well.”
CPAC goers, familiar with Walker’s battles against the unions in Wisconsin, rose to their feet in support. They clapped and hollered appreciatively as Walker pledged to not let his critics “drown out” the voices of “hard-working taxpayers.”
For political observers, Walker’s evening speech was yet another reminder of his transition from a low-key politician who had a reputation as an unexciting speaker to one of the favorites for the Republican presidential nomination.
Walker still faces stiff competition, and it’s far from certain that he will continue to win such raucous receptions at conservative confabs. But for now, the political right seems as intrigued as ever by the Wisconsin governor and his possible candidacy.
A Walker spokeswoman responded Thursday evening to controversy surrounding the governor's comments about how the challenges he'd faced in his current role could compare to those he'd face in the Oval Office.
"Governor Walker believes our fight against ISIS is one of the most important issues our country faces," said Kirsten Kukowski in a statement. "He was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS. What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership. Those are the qualities we need to fix the leadership void this White House has created."