COLUMBIA, S.C. — When Jim Ulmer came to see Scott Walker here last week, he was transfixed. “He’s the little engine that could,” Ulmer said, describing the Wisconsin governor who successfully battled labor unions and has rocketed to the front of the Republican presidential race.
“He has guts,” said Ulmer, 52, Republican Party chairman in rural Orangeburg County. “The people of America are looking for another Ronald Reagan, someone we can believe in, someone who will keep freedom safe. Walker could be it.”
As hundreds of likely GOP primary voters took their first look at Walker here last week, many said he has the qualities they hope to see in the GOP’s next standard-bearer. They acknowledged they know very little about Walker yet said they are ready to vote him into the White House.
As they see it, he’s a fighter, tenacious and decisive. He fought the unions again and again, and he won each time. They see the 47-year-old governor as a truth-teller, a pure conservative and an energetic, fresh face — as the future.
“He represents everything I want in a president,” Joan Boyce, 61, a school cafeteria worker, said after seeing him speak at a barbecue dinner in Greenville. “He’s refreshing for a change. He feels honest to me — he really does. He doesn’t talk like a politician. He talks like a regular guy.”
Republicans in South Carolina and across the nation are restless to break their losing streak in presidential elections, and many are eager to turn the page on the past.
Those who turned out in droves to size up Walker during two days of events here said his top rival, Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor and heir to a political dynasty, gives them pause. None mentioned Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a tea party favorite who will announce his candidacy Monday at Liberty University in Virginia.
They want to rally behind someone they can relate to — and, importantly, who they think can take the fight to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic heavyweight, and win.
For now, at least, that’s Walker.
Republicans will begin picking their nominee 10 months from now, and it’s far too early to know whether Walker will have staying power or whether, as Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain can attest, his star will flicker out.
Activists are so enamored that they are willing to ignore his flaws. His foreign policy blunders and scant national security experience? No big deal. His staffer who was canned after offending Iowans on Twitter? Doesn’t matter. His change of positions on immigration and ethanol subsidies? Not a concern.
“Look,” said Wilma Storey, 65, an accountant. “He won three elections. You’ve got to give it to the man. He’s a fighter. And that’s what we’ve been lacking — a fighter.”
When Walker gave his stump speech at a luncheon Thursday in Columbia, his rat-a-tat-tat attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy record are what brought Storey and others in the crowd to their feet.
“It was wham, bam, right on point,” she said, pounding her right first into the palm of her left hand. “Decisiveness — that’s what I want. He’s a president in waiting.”
On the stump, Walker’s routine is heavily choreographed. Unlike Bush, who fields voters’ questions in most of his appearances, Walker gives a set speech of about 30 minutes. He hits many Republican high notes: lower taxes, stronger national defense, expanded gun rights and tougher abortion restrictions.
“He said everything I wanted to hear and I just said, ‘Preach it, brother!’ ” said Mary Mills, 66, who works in the food stamp program’s fraud department, after seeing Walker in Columbia.
At each stop in South Carolina, he shared the same stories — about standing up to loud labor protesters in Madison; shopping for discounts at Kohl’s; proposing to his wife, Tonette, at a barbecue joint. He also talks about idolizing the Founding Fathers as superheroes in childhood and visiting Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as an adult.
“It dawns on you,” Walker said in Greenville, “these were ordinary people who did something quite extraordinary.”
In the crowd, people nodded in agreement. And by the time he finished speaking, they thought of Walker in much the same way.
“He’s the average American man,” said Gary Tompkins, 47, an executive recruiter. “He’s just an ordinary man who’s capable of doing extraordinary things.”
One recurring theme among his admirers here is that they view him as a survivor. When Matt Moore, the South Carolina Republican Party chairman, introduced Walker at stops in the state, he would recount Walker’s 2010 election, the unsuccessful 2012 recall election and his 2014 reelection.
“If you’re doing math at home, that’s three elections in four years,” Moore would say, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
Walker’s experience in 2011 challenging public sector employees unions, which attracted tens of thousands of labor protesters as well as the national media to the State Capitol, is a core part of his message.
In Greenville, Walker recounted being in his front yard raking leaves with his sons one Sunday afternoon (“between church and watching the Green Bay Packers”).
“This car comes by, the horn honks, the window goes down, the hand comes up and he flipped me off,” Walker said. The governor, unshaken, continued raking the leaves.
The anecdote resonated.
“I can’t believe how he stood up to those union people,” said Janice McPhee, 72, a retired federal worker. “When he said that car drove up to his lawn and the window came down, I thought he was going to say they pulled a gun out. My God.”
GOP activists also like Walker’s Everyman roots. As the governor told each crowd, his father was a small-town Baptist preacher and his mother a part-time secretary. One set of grandparents lived on a farm (“my mother didn’t have indoor plumbing until she went off to junior high”), while his other grandfather was a machinist.
“I didn’t inherit wealth or fame or fortune from my family,” Walker said, a veiled dig at Bush.
After hearing Walker tell his story in Greenville, Gloria Landry said he was exactly the antidote to Bush and Clinton she’s been looking for.
“He’s a real American,” said Landry, 65, a retired office worker. “I want an everyday citizen, not somebody who’s prepared with everything ready for him. They didn’t grow up in a home town. Scott did.”
In Columbia, Ida Martin drew the same conclusion.
“He looks like a working man to me,” said Martin, 60, the party chair in remote Williamsburg County. “He gets us. We need him — he’s fresh, young, has hope and energy and will get out there and work. He’s our kind of candidate. He’ll beat Hillary — I know he will.”