Scott Walker’s challenge: Keeping the momentum

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker departs after speaking at the American Action Forum January 30, 2015 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the week Walker announced the formation of 'Our American Revival', a new committee designed to explore the option of a presidential bid in 2016. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Did Walker's fight with media help him surge in Iowa?
03:59 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is the fastest-rising star in conservative politics.

He’s rocketing to the top-tier of potential 2016 GOP contenders following a strong appearance in Iowa last month and surging to the front of the pack in a handful of polls.

But coming off a 2012 cycle that saw Republican candidates rise and fall with the regularity of a finely-made Swiss watch, Walker’s challenge now is figuring out a way to sustain the momentum.

If he can seize that opportunity, then he could cement himself as one of the leading prospects for the GOP nomination, presenting himself to Republican voters as a more conservative option to establishment candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

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The spotlight was squarely on Walker Thursday as he addressed the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. For the two-term governor, the moment offered an opportunity to present his vision for the country and share his record in Wisconsin.

He offered a blistering critique of President Barack Obama’s handling of the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” But he didn’t offer a specific answer to how he’d take on the group, instead pivoting back to his experience in Wisconsin.

“If i can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe,” he said.

For Walker, his Wisconsin bona fides begin with his 2011 push to curb collective bargaining for public sector workers in Wisconsin. That move led to a fierce backlash from organized labor and progressive allies, massive protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, and a recall effort that Walker survived in June 2012.

He became the first governor in U.S. history to accomplish that feat, and in the process endeared himself to conservatives nationwide.

Now he finds himself in the middle of another confrontation with labor, this time surrounding right-to-work legislation that would bar private companies from reaching labor agreements requiring workers pay fees to unions as a condition of employment. The Wisconsin state Senate approved the measure on Wednesday and the state assembly is expected to take it up next week.

Walker has fully embraced the legislation, pledging to sign it and blasting out a fundraising appeal Thursday morning touting his record as a “bold reformer” who has “taken the reins of power away from the bosses and put the taxpayers back in charge.”

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That position stands in contrast with Walker’s approach during his 2014 re-election campaign when he said the right-to-work legislation was “not something that’s part of my agenda.”

The scrutiny that comes from battles with organized labor is more comfortable ground for Walker when compared to his cautious responses to questions in recent weeks involving evolution, Rudy Giuliani’s comments that President Obama does not love America and the president’s religious beliefs.

By playing it safe in those instances, Walker opened himself up to criticism that he might not be totally ready for prime time. Walker, though, turned the episode around on the media, blasting “gotcha questions” as distractions from the “big, bold ideas” he is promoting.

At CPAC, he touted those battles – as well as Republican efforts in Wisconsin – to block government dollars from going to Planned Parenthood, to require photo IDs to vote, and to reduce regulations – as he showcased the no-compromise rhetoric that has made him a conservative favorite.

“We won in Wisconsin a state that hasn’t gone Republican for president since 1984. … We did it without compromising,” he said. “We stood up and said what we were gonna do, and then we did it.”

Walker continued a recent theme after his speech on Thursday, pushing back against the media when reporters asked whether he’d been comparing labor protestors to terrorists when he talked foreign policy.

“You all will misconstrue things the way you see fit, but I think it’s pretty clear, that’s the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there’s any parallel between the two,” he said.

His anti-media rhetoric was an argument that tends to be a winner in a room full of conservative activists like he will have at CPAC. If Walker can further solidify his reputation as a fighter – not just against unions, but the media as well – that is a strategy that could allow him to remain near the front of the pack going forward.

The deflections on questions about evolution and Giuliani haven’t hurt his chances so far. The latest Quinnipiac University of Iowa GOP caucuses-goers this week showed Walker leading the potential field with 25 percent, nearly double his next closest competitor.

CNN’s Eric Bradner contributed to this report.