DES MOINES, Iowa — Scott Walker’s magic moment in Iowa continues.
The Wisconsin governor, accompanied by his wife Tonette and his son Matt, met with Iowa caucus voters at public and private events on Saturday, coming straight from the Republican Party of Wisconsin convention in La Crosse that morning.
And although he reiterated that he won’t announce any plans to run for president until after the state’s budget is signed, he tiptoed closer still to framing himself as a candidate. For some Iowa voters, that’s close enough for now.
“He’s my candidate. You bet. He’s magic,” said Dixie Watters of Des Moines, who greeted Walker with a hug at Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart’s Blue Jean Bash fundraiser on Saturday afternoon. “He can win three elections in four years, in a blue state. That’s all it takes.”
Asked what Walker would bring to the White House, Watters answered: “Class. Dignity. Strength.”
Between now and 2016, Watters’ plans are to campaign “for Gov. Walker, absolutely, as much as possible.”
After appearances at two fundraisers for Iowa elected officials, Walker was the headliner at the Iowa GOP Lincoln Day Dinner on Saturday night. Repeating themes he’s sounded in Wisconsin and throughout the country, Walker earned applause for comments about defunding Planned Parenthood and passing pro-life, concealed carry, castle doctrine and voter ID legislation.
But the most electric response came when he talked about national security.
“Some people call it national security. I call it safety,” Walker said, speaking to a crowd of about 1,300 at the Iowa Events Center. “Safety’s something you feel. National security is something you read about.”
As a governor, Walker has a steep hill to climb when it comes to developing foreign policy credentials. But anecdotes from his recent week-long trip to Israel thrust a touch of personal experience into the policies for which he advocates.
Walker talked about a helicopter ride he took with a retired general of Israel’s army on Monday. Looking from above, he said, it dawned on him that the people below “literally sit there wondering if the alarm is going to go off … and if they’re going to have seconds to search for cover.”
“It is time to remind Israel they have an ally in the U.S. It is time to send a message around the world that we stand with our allies … In America they should know there is no greater friend, and for the rest of the world, there is no worse enemy,” Walker said.
Walker said that reinforced his belief that the United States must fight radical Islamic terrorists by taking the fight directly to them, rather than waiting for another attack on American soil. The governor again called for a commander in chief who will.
Walker was one of 11 presidential candidates — some, like him, still unannounced — to speak at the dinner.
Brian and Shelly Hughes of Waukee are still on the fence when it comes to choosing a candidate. But they attended Airhart’s fundraiser — held at a palatial lodge-style "party barn" on the West Des Moines estate of seed company magnate Harry Stine — specifically to learn more about Walker.
Shelly, a member of the Waukee City Council, spent some time chatting with Tonette Walker, while Brian spoke with Matt.
“We’re thankful to be able to talk to his family and find out who he really is,” Brian said.
Shelly agreed: the Walkers seem “very normal,” and sincere, she said.
The couple is looking for a candidate whose desire to serve is greater than his or her ego.
If you ask Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, Walker is not that candidate.
“He has always operated in a system by which he looks for the next highest office,” Ross told reporters at the Iowa Capitol on Friday. “From his election night speech in 2014, where he mentioned Washington as many times as he mentioned Wisconsin, and then weeks later he was down here beginning his campaign for president … It’s unfortunate, because Scott Walker puts his political future ahead of the people of Wisconsin every time, and I guess we’ll have to see how the people of Iowa respond to what has been an administration of nothing more than cronyism, corruption and incompetence.”
Matt Sinovic, executive director of the liberal group Progress Iowa, said Walker has “gotten a lot done since he’s been in office, but the policies he’s enacted have been just horrible for his state.”
Sinovic and Ross pointed to Wisconsin’s ranking as 40th in the nation in private-sector job growth, based on the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, and to Walker’s failure to create the 250,000 jobs he promised in his 2010 campaign.
The governor has taken heat recently for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-private economic development agency he created to replace the state’s commerce department four years ago.
An audit released last week found that the agency, which Walker heads, has not been following state law or properly tracking job creation figures for companies that received tax awards. After the audit’s release, Walker called for a halt to his proposed merger of WEDC with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, and said he wants to phase out direct loans to businesses.
A Wisconsin State Journal investigation, published Sunday, revealed that Mike Huebsch, Walker's former secretary of Administration, pushed for a $4.3 million WEDC loan for Building Committee Inc. — eventually reduced to $500,000, which was not repaid — even as the company was collapsing. Walker's move to halt loans came hours after the state released records relating to BCI's loan on Friday.
In La Crosse on Saturday, Walker defended the agency itself, saying the “broader vision is actually very successful,” according to the Associated Press.
But while he faces questions and low approval ratings at home, Walker tops the polls across the Mississippi. A Quinnipiac poll released last week put him eight points ahead of the next most popular contenders among likely Republican caucus goers in Iowa, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
In April, a Marquette University Law School poll showed the governor’s approval ratings slipping at home.
Among registered voters in Wisconsin, 41 percent approve of Walker's job performance. That's down from 49 percent in October, just before he defeated Democrat Mary Burke for a second term.