Rand Paul may have won CPAC’s presidential straw poll for the third time in a row Saturday. His young libertarian legions turned out in force, as they had for Sen. Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul.
But the big winner was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who came in a very strong second – jumping ahead from his sixth place finish last year and tripling his portion of the 3,007 votes spread among 17 candidates to 21.4 percent, not far behind Paul’s 25.7 percent. When voters’ first and second choices were added together, the margin between the two narrowed to less than one percentage point.
Among the activists at the annual three-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) – who generally fall to the enthusiastic right of the Republican spectrum – Gov. Walker came across as the strongest young challenger, not only to Democrats but to mainstream Republicanism.
In a historically progressive state, he fought public employee unions, beat back a recall effort that only strengthened his position, and won reelection.
Although he’s well-known mainly for what critics charge (and supporters admire) is union-busting, Walker has emerged as the shiny, new object among figures more prominent on the national political stage. (Jeb Bush came in a mediocre fifth in the CPAC straw poll. Farther back in the pack were former Sen. Rick Santorum, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, and former governor Rick Perry.)
But it’s not just conservative activists paying close attention to Walker.
“Not since George W. Bush in 2000 has a GOP presidential candidate drawn support across so many divides,” declares the headline on a National Journal piece, which cites a new Quinnipiac University Poll giving Walker 25 percent among likely participants in next year's Iowa Republican caucus – nearly twice as much as second-place finisher Rand Paul.
The Real Clear Politics polling average also puts Walker at the head of the pack, just in front of Bush
At CPAC, Walker did what all potentially-presidential speakers do there: Genuflect at the record and memory of Ronald Reagan., comparing his head-butting with public employee unions to Mr. Reagan’s 1981 firing of 11,000 air-traffic controllers.
Events back home are boosting Walker’s image in this regard.
At the state capitol in Madison Saturday, some 5,000 workers from around the state were bused in to protest a so-called "right-to-work" law approved by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate last week. The measure would ban private sector workers from being required to join a union or pay dues. Walker supports the bill, which moves to the State Assembly (also GOP-controlled) this week. If the measure comes to Walker for his signature, Wisconsin would become the 25th “right-to-work” state.
Walker’s early exposure to the bright lights of presidential politics has not been without stumbles.
He avoided press questions about evolution, President Barack Obama's love of country, and the president's religion. At CPAC, Walker compared his political fight against union protesters in Wisconsin to America's actual fight against Islamic State militants in the Middle East – a fiery statement his staff had to correct.
"Take your worst day in any state capital around the country, and every day is like that on a presidential campaign," Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a senior adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, told the Associated Press.
"The media scrutiny is brutal, the parsing of every quote never ends and all of your opponents – whether they're from the other party or even inside your own – has staff solely dedicated to ruining every one of your events or interviews," Madden said.
Back to the Pauls for a second.
Ron Paul had some GOP primary and caucus victories when he ran for president, but he was never going to win the Republican nomination. And while Rand Paul may come across as more attractive and mainstream than his father, and while he won CPAC’s straw poll, he’s still an outlier among his party’s hopefuls as well as among many typical Republican voters.
Which leaves Scott Walker – for now, at least – the most interesting one to follow.