CLEVELAND — After a late start and an early exit in the 2016 campaign, Gov. Scott Walker spent time this week at the Republican National Convention laying vital groundwork should he run for president again.
At this point, Walker — who is scheduled to address the entire convention Wednesday night — said the only potential campaign he’s thinking about is a third run for governor in 2018, but he won’t rule out another national run in 2020, 2024 or even 2036.
“I could wait 20 years and still be younger than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,” Walker told reporters Tuesday after speaking at a South Carolina delegation breakfast. “From my standpoint, I’m in no rush. We’ll see what God’s calling is in all of this.”
Walker’s speech to the South Carolina delegation had the familiar ring of the speeches he delivered there and in other early primary states in the run-up to his short-lived presidential campaign. A day earlier he gave a similar speech to the Iowa delegation.
He told the story of flipping hamburgers in Delavan down the road from a Janesville McDonald’s where now-House Speaker Paul Ryan once was told he didn’t have the interpersonal skills to work the cash register. He pulled out his pocket Constitution and called for the federal government to return power to the states. He laid out the conservative laws he passed in Wisconsin, such as elimination of public sector union collective bargaining and allowing the carrying of concealed weapons.
“The conservative movement is alive and well in our states; we just need to start bottling it in our nation’s capital,” Walker said.
Matt Moore, the South Carolina Republican Party chairman, said one of the factors that tripped up Walker in the presidential election was that he got a late start.
Moore noted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke at delegation breakfasts during the 2012 GOP convention.
“Gov. Walker is still a rising star in the Republican Party,” Moore said. “He got kind of a late start last time. It’s important to establish relationships early in the first four primary states. Breakfasts like this are an incredible opportunity to do just that.”
Walker led in some national and early state polls last year before he declared his candidacy after a breakout performance at an Iowa conservative forum in January 2015. He then traveled extensively around the country, including multiple stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three traditional primary states that help cull the field and can reward winners with momentum.
This year’s nominee, Donald Trump, won in New Hampshire and South Carolina, while runner-up Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the Iowa caucus.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, agreed Walker is still a party star, but “he certainly has seen his trajectory diminished.”
“Four years ago he really was seen as this phenomenon,” Smith said. “The expectations for him were raised too high. … His campaign for president certainly proved he wasn’t the same person. Whatever it was that worked in Wisconsin wasn’t going to work at the national level.”
Walker has been walking a tightrope in recent months in dealing with Trump.
During the race, Walker pledged to support the eventual nominee, but when he dropped out in September he called on other candidates to do the same to clear the field for a conservative alternative to Trump. That didn’t happen until much later, allowing Trump to cleave a pathway to the nomination.
Walker backed Cruz in Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, which turned out to be the last state where Trump lost.
National anti-Trump forces floated Walker as a potential alternative who could be nominated by delegates voting their conscience at the convention, a movement Walker granted some credence a few weeks ago.
But since then, Walker, a close ally of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, has gotten in Trump’s corner and was one of the earlier national figures to announce he would speak at the convention.
At the South Carolina breakfast, Walker previewed the speech he’ll give Wednesday night, saying he wouldn’t give Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “the password to my iPhone, let alone access to classified information.”
Unlike his speech at the Republican Party of Wisconsin state convention, he also mentioned Trump, defending him as a less-than-perfect candidate.
“The choice is clear,” Walker said. “Some say there’s a fault here and a fault there. The Bible is full of leaders who were less than perfect.”
Walker said he’s also visiting with delegations from Oklahoma, Connecticut and other states this week. He explained that one thing he and his wife, Tonette, miss about the campaign trail are the people.
David Keene, opinion editor of the conservative Washington Times, said the nation’s political memory is not very long and if Walker has a successful term as governor, he’s by no means forgotten on the national stage.
“The shock to people was that too many people embraced him and then he blew it,” Keene said.
University of Iowa political science professor Cary Covington said Walker’s future may hinge on what happens in November.
“If Trump were to win, then people like Walker and Cruz and Rubio are history,” Covington said. “If he’s obliterated and they lose control of the Senate, then the party might say, ‘Wow, that was a mistake, we should go back to the guys we know. It was a mistake to go this far out to the extremes and we’ll look again at guys like Rubio and Walker.’”