DERRY, N.H. — Calling voters “folks” and boasting about his cut-rate suits from Jos. A. Bank, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker campaigned vigorously in New Hampshire over the weekend, citing his polarizing labor policies and urging Republican primary voters to resist pleas for moderation in a party that has lost the last two presidential elections.
Walker’s brash, populist pitch was a direct shot at his better-heeled GOP rivals and the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he dismissed as out of touch as well as beatable, should Republicans eventually coalesce around a contender who looks, speaks and shops like everyday Americans.
Walker presented himself as a natural fit.
Pointing to his rolled-up blue sleeves, Walker said he has been buying “shirts like this” for decades and that he is a devoted fan of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which he plans to ride through New Hampshire’s 10 counties.
Walker did so not as an outsized and comfortable front-runner — though he narrowly leads most polls in the first-in-the-nation primary state — but as an all-but-certain presidential candidate well aware of the fleeting nature of momentum in a race becoming more competitive by the day.
Three months ago, Walker, 47, rocketed to the fore of the 2016 field after delivering a fiery speech in Iowa that enraptured conservative Republicans eager to rally behind a fresh face — and impressing donors who had long considered Walker to be a political force but perhaps too vanilla to be the GOP’s standard-bearer in a national contest.
Soon after, Walker stumbled — taking heat for saying his experience battling union protesters in Wisconsin has prepared him to take on the Islamic State and refusing to comment on President Obama’s patriotism. His stance on immigration seemed to evolve from interview to interview. On foreign policy, he appeared shaky, and his depth was questioned by respected voices in his party.
In spite of these growing pains and the ascent of a galaxy of hard-right stars — such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who announced his presidential bid last month — Walker has not seen his standing diminish in the polls or among party activists.
Instead, Walker has remained, along with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, at or near the top of surveys of Republican voters and encouraged by the party’s wealthy super PAC benefactors.
“There is an incubation period for all of these candidates,” said Republican Mark Osborn, a criminal-defense lawyer in Derry who watched Walker on Sunday from the back of the room at a community center. “I don’t see over-polish with him. But I wouldn’t mind a president who knows how much a sweater costs or what a tank of gas is going for.”
A showcase of Walker’s sustained footing came Saturday as he addressed a GOP conference in Nashua that drew the Granite State’s power brokers. Over salmon and roasted potatoes, he dined with former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu and Jennifer Horn, state party chairwoman.
The keynote speaker at the closing of a confab that also featured more than 17 possible presidential candidates, Walker’s oration — only a slight variation on that speech in Iowa months ago — won rave reviews from party faithful.
Walker’s scattered barbs for Clinton stirred applause, particularly his dig that she has probably never shopped at Kohl’s. So did the unrepentant way he recounted his clashes with public employees in his state and his victory in a hard-fought gubernatorial recall election in 2012. And when he mentioned that Wisconsin requires people “to carry a photo ID to prove who you are” at the polls, the audience broke into cheers.
Glancing abroad, Walker hit on common GOP criticisms, chastising Obama for his handling of “radical Islamic terrorism” in the Middle East and the U.S. relationship with Israel. He also nodded toward his own tutorials on the world in recent weeks, ticking off his concerns about U.S. policy on Yemen and Iran.
Turning to a possible general-election battle with Clinton, Walker reassured conservatives in the crowded ballroom that they do not need to change in order to woo independent voters or win the White House — a break from many Republican leaders who have expressed hope that the next nominee would mount a less combative and ideological campaign.
“You don’t win the center by running to the center, you win the center by leading,” Walker said.
Sensing a tough, expensive general-election campaign against Clinton on the horizon — and an electoral map that could favor the Democrats — each Republican camp is plotting how to convincingly make the case as her best-positioned challenger. Bush is casting himself as a reformer, Cruz as a warrior, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who jumped into the race last week, is emphasizing generational themes.
For Walker, that process has largely been straightforward, and he has developed what may be the clearest line of attack against Clinton: that she’s an elitist and he’s not.
In a brief interview, Walker broke into a wry smile when asked whether he was talking up his middle-class roots to differentiate with Clinton, a global political celebrity. “It’s something that people will be interested in,” he said. “Part of the contrast is also being new versus the Clintons, who are obviously more of the ’90s.”
But the enthusiasm was far from universal. Unlike Iowa, which has traditionally been a launching pad for evangelical conservative candidates, New Hampshire’s Republican electorate has a libertarian strain that frequently seeps into how voters see social debates such as same-sex marriage.
Walker, who has been aggressively courting religious conservatives, said several times this weekend that he believes marriage is “defined as between a man and a woman.” He did note Saturday that he has been to a “reception” for a gay family member.
Rebecca Rutter, a Derry Republican, asked Walker about same-sex marriage Sunday and said she was “disappointed” by his response, where he reiterated his view and said his preference would be to let states decide the issue.
“I worry that my party is on the wrong side of history,” she said.