While Gov. Scott Walker fends off in-state scrutiny over a "drafting error" that would have removed the Wisconsin Idea from the University of Wisconsin's mission statement, he's riding a wave as one of the first frontrunners for the 2016 Republican nomination for president.
It's unclear whether the UW uproar will cast shade onto the governor's prolonged moment in the sun.
Walker is the first Republican candidate to be buoyed by a "boomlet" in the 2016 race. He's leading in the early primary and caucus states of Iowa and New Hampshire and creating a buzz with a flurry of speeches at conservative gatherings throughout the country.
It was announced this week that he'll be back in Iowa on March 7 for the first-ever Iowa Agricultural Summit, hosted by prominent GOP donor and president of the Iowa Board of Regents Bruce Rastetter, and later this month he'll address the Conservative Political Action Conference, which he skipped last year.
But in the days following the governor's 2015-17 budget address, he's been subjected to massive blowback from UW officials and alumni as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for the proposed changes to the century-old mission statement.
While the UW alumni network stretches far and wide, it's possible the drafting debate won't poke any holes in Walker's 2016 status. The Washington Post's The Fix dubbed him the "first 'it' candidate" of 2016 on Thursday, citing national and state-level polls — including the conservative "Drudge Primary."
The primary is still a year away, but as the Post's Aaron Blake wrote: "Things will change, but Walker is getting some early buzz, without question, and you'd rather have that than not."
The politically shrewd governor is using that early buzz to his advantage, beefing up the staff for his Our American Revival fundraising committee and courting top-level donors.
Politico reported on Wednesday that Walker has hired a top D.C. fundraiser, has a March fundraiser planned in Florida — home of potential opponent Jeb Bush — and is going after Mitt Romney donors.
"Meanwhile, Walker’s allies are discussing forming a pro-Walker super PAC to roll out in the coming weeks, sources said," Politico's James Hohmann and Kenneth P. Vogel reported.
And despite the inevitable comparisons to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the 2012 GOP field after a disappointing performance in the Iowa Straw Poll, Pawlenty himself says Walker has something he lacked.
"Because of the recall and his good work in Wisconsin, he’s got one of the largest direct-mail and Internet donor bases in the country and very established relationships with major donors. That’s going to allow him to raise a competitive amount of money to ride out the inevitable highs and lows of the campaign," Pawlenty told the Washington Post's Matea Gold.
But Walker's foes say the questions surrounding the Wisconsin Idea changes spell the beginning of the end of his national viability.
While the governor's office attributed the changes to a "drafting error" on Wednesday afternoon, reviews of drafting notes showed that the governor's administration gave line-by-line instructions on how to remove the language in question.
In a 500-word statement issued Thursday, Walker backtracked on statements made previously to reporters.
The governor said in the statement that he found out late on Wednesday that UW officials had privately raised concerns with his administration over the language changes, but had been told it was not up for debate. He said that was because the staff had been told to "keep it simple and only add in workforce readiness language."
"Clearly, changing the Wisconsin Idea serves no purpose. That is why I made it clear on Wednesday that we would not change it in the budget," Walker said in the statement. "It is not a change of heart. It was a simple miscommunication during the natural back and forth of this process.
The governor said the "real debate" should be over the governance of the UW System and how much an authority is worth in savings.
While the governor's explanation chalks it up to confusion and miscommunication, some aren't buying it and insist there will be larger implications.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement the governor's answer "raises serious questions about who is in control while he is busy running for president." And Democratic National Committee spokesman Jason Pitt said the announcement is "just the latest example in his regular history of misleading the people he's supposed to be serving."
"GOP primary voters don't reject the notion that public education is a public good that creates jobs and opportunity," said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now. "The legislative records shows he lied, and his opponents will do what they can behind the scenes to let the media in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and the Beltway know what we in Wisconsin already know: That Scott Walker is politics incarnate and he'll say and do anything to get elected."
Melissa Baldauff, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Wisconsinites have caught Walker in "lie after lie."
"Everything from 'I ran on eliminating collective bargaining' to 'I'm going to serve as governor for the next four years' and now 'gutting the Wisconsin Idea was a drafting error,'" Baldauff said. "What else is he lying about? We wouldn't accept our children telling flat-out lies and then refusing responsibility once caught, and we won't accept it from our governor. Regardless of party, Wisconsin deserves better from our elected officials."
But do people outside Wisconsin without ties to the UW know — or care — about the Wisconsin Idea?
Craig Robinson, a former director of the Republican Party of Iowa who now runs the influential political website The Iowa Republican, said, being unfamiliar with the Wisconsin Idea, it's difficult to have an informed opinion on how this could affect Walker's presidential buzz.
However, Robinson added, both of his neighbors moved to Iowa from Wisconsin.
"It's pretty clear by their Facebook activity that Walker hit a nerve," Robinson said. "Any issue that elicits that much passion could be problematic. It's never good to have problems or controversy at home when you are running for national office."
Both Robinson and Kevin Hall, a reporter and columnist for The Iowa Republican, had seen reports on the story — but Shane Vander Hart, who runs the Iowa conservative site Caffeinated Thoughts, said he hadn't heard until contacted by the Cap Times about it.
"This looks like a minor blip on the radar to me," Hall said. "I don't think Iowans care a great deal about the University of Wisconsin's mission statement and an apparent miscommunication. They're more concerned with Gov. Walker's views on the economy, national security and our $18 trillion debt."
Vander Hart said he doesn't think the story will have much play in Iowa. He said grassroots activists are more interested in the governor's proposal to stop using Smarter Balanced exams, which are tied to Common Core academic standards. Those academic implements, Vander Hart said, are symbolic in the mind of the typical Republican voter of "big government and failed top-down education policies."
Walker, in his statement, insisted there is "no debate over the principles contained within the Wisconsin Idea."