The risk of Scott Walker's safe politics

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Washington (CNN)Scott Walker -- the Wisconsin governor who built a political brand around bold actions -- is now making a habit of staying away from hot topics entirely, from President Obama's faith to evolution, as he eyes a White House bid next year.

Walker, already under fire for failing to disown comments from Rudy Giuliani in which the former New York mayor said he doesn't believe Obama "loves America," said Saturday he doesn't know if the President is a Christian.
"I don't know," the Republican governor replied when asked about the President's faith in an interview with The Washington Post.
"I've actually never talked about it or I haven't read about that. I've never asked him that," Walker said. "You've asked me to make statements about people that I haven't had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?"
    A Walker spokesperson later called the paper to say "of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian," but his initial response reflected a disapproval of "gotcha questions" that "distract" from his record.
    Democrats charged that Walker had "doubled down on his divisive politics," linking his comments on the President's religion with his unwillingness to weigh in firmly on Giuliani's remarks earlier in the week.
    "Scott Walker had a simple test," said DNC national press secretary Holly Shulman. "He could have risen above the fray, but he continues to flatly fail and instead push the same polarizing agenda and politics he has for years in Wisconsin."
    Walker took to Twitter Saturday night to deliver a personal rebuke to critics and promote his recently launched political committee.
    "Enough with the media's gotcha game, we started Our American Revival to talk about big, bold ideas," Walker wrote.
    The governor's comments about Obama's religion came as he has faced scrutiny for declining repeated opportunities in recent days to assess Giuliani's controversial statements regarding the president's love of country.
    "He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me," Giuliani said at a dinner that Walker attended this week, according to Politico. "He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
    When asked about the comments during a CNBC interview, Walker refused to rebuke Giuliani.
    "The mayor can speak for himself," Walker said. "I'm not going to comment on whether, what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself. I'll tell you I love America, and I think there are plenty of people Democrat, Republican, independent and everybody in between who love this country."
    That deflection came after Walker, during a visit to London last week, punted when asked if he accepted the idea of evolution.
    "That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or the other, so I'm gonna leave that up to you," Walker responded.
    He later released a statement seeking to clarify his views.
    "I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand," he said.
    If politics is a circus, then running for president is the high-wire act. And while one high-profile stumble could derail a campaign, there also might be a risk in playing it too safe.
    The refusal to fully engage on the questions about evolution and the President's faith, or to pass some kind of judgment on Giuliani's comments, creates a dissonance with Walker's would-be campaign message: that he represents "fresh leadership" and is someone with "big, bold ideas and the courage to act on it."
    While his handling of these episodes might not cause him much pain with the Republican base, it could pose problems down the road in a general election with independent voters. On the question of evolution, specifically, 65% of independents believe humans evolved over time, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey.
    For Walker, who is still introducing himself to voters around the country, he must make a calculation when it makes sense to lean in, and when to play it safe.
    "Whenever you run for president you are playing a high-stakes game of poker," said veteran GOP strategist John Brabender, who advised former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential campaign.
    "There is so much risk in saying the wrong thing, you will find in the short-term people who will be cautious," he added. "Great campaigns know there is a time to run and a time to walk."
    The time for running will come soon enough, with candidates likely to launch their official bids in the coming months, and primary debates soon to follow beginning in August.
    In the meantime, Brabender expects the 2016 contenders will focus not just on building up their name identification with voters, but their "brand equity," which could help to blunt a misstep once the campaign is fully joined. Consider it the lesson of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry from 2012, whose prospects failed to recover from his infamous debate lapse.
    "Because there are so many qualified candidates, one mistake can be too many in a race like this," Brabender said. "You don't get multiple opportunities to introduce yourself."​