BEACHWOOD, Ohio — Scott Walker says he came to this week’s Republican National Convention to help ensure that Donald Trump defeats Hillary Clinton in November.
But in case he doesn’t, Walker came here — to a suburban steakhouse rented by the Iowa delegation for its kickoff breakfast — to begin the work of rebuilding his stature among Republicans in the first nominating state.
It was 18 months ago that Walker exploded out of the gate in the early stages of the 2016 primary race, delivering a pitch-perfect speech to a packed house of conservative activists in Des Moines that rocketed the Wisconsin governor to the top of the Republican primary polls in Iowa — and thrust him under a political microscope he was ill-prepared for.
By the time Walker launched his campaign in mid-July, his momentum had dissipated. His prime fundraising window has been missed. And his series of verbal slip-ups had erased the perception of his front-runner status in Iowa. Walker’s campaign last just 71 days, and as he bowed out of the race, Republicans close to him whispered that he was saving face in order to preserve another opportunity at winning the White House.
That second chance could come in 2020, though Walker, meeting with reporters after his speech, took an tepid stab at tamping down such expectations. He said he’s leaning toward running for reelection in 2018, which would sideline him for 2020 considering his term would begin in January 2019 — right around the time presidential candidates begin organizing their campaigns.
“I’ve made it clear in my state that if I ran for reelection, that I would not run for any other office during that term,” Walker said. He added that 2016 demonstrated for him how it’s “difficult to be the candidate you need to be to win if you’re still in office as governor. So, if I run in 2018 again, I would fulfill my term.”
And yet Walker, whose relentless ambition is the stuff of legend in Wisconsin political circles — and whose strategic shrewdness is central to his political DNA — would be foolish to say anything else at this impossibly early stage. His mere presence Monday morning spoke volumes: Iowa’s delegation meetings offer a highly coveted speaking spot for future White House contenders, and Walker didn’t wind up standing before them by accident. (Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann said there was “mutual interest” in scheduling his appearance.)
The governor wasn’t there just to give a speech, either. He arrived early and spent at least 20 minutes before his speech going table to table, shaking hands with Iowa delegates and snapping photographs. In some cases Walker was meeting people for the first time; in many others he was reconnecting with familiar.
Whether it was an introduction or re-introduction, the governor’s remarks emphasized just how much he loves Iowans — and how, in case they didn’t know, he’s really one of them. Walker reminded the delegates, at least seven times, that he spent part of his childhood in Plainfield, Iowa. He told them how his father was a Baptist minister, how his mother grew up on a farm, how he worked from a young age washing dishes at a local restaurant and later flipping burgers at McDonalds.
It was boilerplate biographical rhetoric from Walker, the same anecdotes offered and absorbed last year on the campaign trail. His presentation was informal in substance and style, offering nothing in the way of a new-and-improved stump speech that would smack of political positioning. To a casual listener, one might think Walker really wasn’t interested in another presidential bid.
But the governor dropped several hints that suggested otherwise. First, he told of visiting Iowa last week for the National Governors Association meeting — and shared with reporters that while there, he took a crew of his former campaign associates to a minor league baseball game. He also told the crowd that he would be returning in the fall, ostensibly to raise money for local Republicans attempting to win back the state Senate.
These subtle maneuvers — nurturing his existing network of support in the state, and planning return trips to Iowa before Election Day has come and gone — betray at the very least a simple reality: The presidential bug hasn’t left Scott Walker’s body.
He knows it’s far too early signal overt interest in the next presidential cycle. But he also realizes that certain markers must be laid down, with potential competition already circling the wagons. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who is almost certain to one day mount a White House bid, speaks to the Iowa delegation at a Wednesday lunch. And Ted Cruz, the defending caucus champion, recently caused a stir by creating a pair of political non-profits to promote his brand — and enlisting his former Iowa state director as a charter employee.
Any 2020 speculation could be temporarily rendered moot, of course, by a Trump victory in November. And though Walker gave only a fleeting mention to Trump — urging all Republicans to support him whether he was their “first choice, second choice, or 17th choice” — he sang the praises of running mate Mike Pence and seemed genuine in pleading for party unity at this week’s convention.
Walker didn’t want Iowa’s delegates to forget that the real opponent is Clinton.
Nor did he want them to forget about him.