WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Scott Walker tried to introduce himself to Iowa Republicans on Thursday as so many would-be presidential candidates often do — one of their own.
After all, the Wisconsin governor weighing a 2016 bid for president spent seven years as a young child living in Plainfield, a tiny town in northwest Iowa Walker referred to a half-dozen times during a 40-minute speech at a Republican fundraiser.
More broadly, the rising GOP figure prescribed what he characterized as a Midwestern approach to politics and the way for Republicans, back-to-back White House losers, to win again.
“I would encourage us all to be more optimistic, more relevant and more courageous,” Walker told 600 GOP activists in a suburban Des Moines hotel ballroom. “I think when we do, we win in Iowa, we win in Wisconsin, and all across this great country, and we transform this place we live in.”
The first-term governor, who has won party acclaim for taking on unions and overcame a contentious recall election, has been raising his national profile with speeches to national Republican audiences in recent months and headlined fundraisers in New York and Connecticut this week.
Walker was making his first visit Thursday to the state that has traditionally held the first presidential caucuses. He was the keynote speaker at the Polk County Republican Party’s annual spring fundraising dinner and also met privately with leaders at a separate fundraiser before the banquet.
The audience applauded when he noted during the speech how he won a larger victory in defeating Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee during the recall vote last year than he did in his 2010 election. They cheered again when he described the budget surplus Wisconsin has today, compared with the $3.6 billion deficit in place when he took office.
“Scott Walker is a great example of a courageous governor who made the tough decisions and has the state going in the right direction,” said Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who attended the event.
Walker opponents, including some who traveled from Milwaukee, said earlier Thursday that Walker overpromised the number of jobs he would bring in. Wisconsin’s unemployment has dropped during his time in office, albeit less dramatically than in other Midwestern states such as Michigan and Ohio.
Walker kept returning in his remarks to his time in Iowa, as a boy, and the son of a Baptist minister. Walker’s family moved to southern Wisconsin when he was 10.
He ticked through the name of a former teacher, a neighbor and the state legislator-turned congressman, “a farmer down the way from us named Chuck Grassley.”
Grassley is now Iowa’s senior U.S. senator, serving his sixth term.
Should he decide to run for president, Walker’s Iowa ties and evangelical upbringing could serve him well in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, where Christian conservatives make up an influential bloc.
Walker didn’t touch on social issues. Instead, he urged the party to reach out to voting blocs Republicans have struggled to win, such as Latinos. Walker trumpeted his success winning Hispanic-leaning precincts when he was Milwaukee County executive before being elected governor.
“We’ve got a message of opportunity and optimism. We’ve got to be willing to go to places that Republicans typically don’t go,” he said.
It’s a style that works for Connie Schmett, a Des Moines-area Republican who contributed money to Walker’s recall campaign and attended the event Thursday.
“He’s like your brother, your neighbor,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of these guys. And he just seems like a good guy.”
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