In battle for authenticity, Scott Walker looks to Kohl’s

Published 6:56 PM EDT, Sun April 19, 2015
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(CNN) —  

Scott Walker brought his everyman pitch to New Hampshire this weekend, branding himself as the Kohl’s-wearing, Harley-riding governor.

The Wisconsin Republican’s penchant for the discount clothing company – headquartered in his home state – first got attention when he spoke before an Iowa audience three months ago, and he’s still charming audiences and getting big laughs for his unabashed enthusiasm about the department store.

When he visited New Hampshire in March, he wore a sweater that he said he paid one dollar for at Kohl’s. But Saturday night, while headlining a dinner at the New Hampshire GOP First in the Nation Summit, Walker said he got a little more dressed up.

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“I wore a suit tonight,” he said, opening up his jacket to show the label. “The shirt is from Kohl’s. The suit is from Jos. A Bank.”

Walker isn’t the only 2016 Republican who’s pouncing on the authenticity factor. With Mitt Romney having faced constant attacks in 2012 for appearing out of touch – and now Hillary Clinton battling a similar narrative – Republicans are stumbling over each other trying to prove who’s the most down-to-Earth candidate.

That competition was on display this week when the candidates ventured out into New Hampshire for some retail politicking. Chris Christie held a town hall at a dive bar Friday night in Exeter, where voters listened with Solo cups in their hands as the New Jersey governor promised they’d always feel like they knew him.

While Jeb Bush was eating blueberry pie Thursday night in Concord, he told a roomful of voters and reporters that when he goes to Chipotle, he drives his “own car,” making a not-so-veiled swipe at Clinton.

Mike Huckabee let a small throng of reporters and cameras follow him around as he looked at guns and fired off a few rounds in target practice at an indoor gun range in Hudson. When he makes his likely presidential run, he’ll preach a message that blue-collar, working class people “ought to be the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” he said.

And Marco Rubio toured a welding training facility at Manchester Community College, calling to de-stigmatize blue collar jobs.

While Walker rocketed to national fame during his battle with public unions during his first term, he’s now getting to introduce a less controversial side of himself and develop a narrative that will take root in states like New Hampshire, where voters take seriously their role of getting to know the presidential candidates.

After going to church Sunday, Walker told a small gathering of Republicans in Derry, New Hampshire, that he’s eager to get his Harley out to the state and ride around. Later, when the booming sound of a motorcycle filtered though the window, he stopped.

“That’s the sound of a Harley,” he said, exciting the audience.

Walker’s use of Kohl’s has not only proven to be a crowd favorite but also an efficient illustration of three messages. First, it helps show he’s frugal. He touts his ability to use so many coupons and Kohl’s Cash that by the end of the transaction, “They’re basically paying me to buy the shirt.”

Second, it lets him talk tax policy. In the way that Kohl’s lowers the prices on items and expands the volume to drive up profits, he’d like to lower the tax rate and expand the number of people who pay taxes, he says. It’s already a concept called the “Laffer Curve,” but Walker says he’s renamed it the “Kohl’s Curve.”

Third, he’s found a way to also work in a swipe against Clinton.

“I doubt the presumptive nominee for the other party has ever been to Kohl’s,” he said Saturday night.

It’s part of a strategy that aims to emphasize that he didn’t “inherent fame and fortune,” as he frequently says, using a line that also draws a contrast with Bush, whether intentional or not.

The Kohl’s schtick has also developed a fourth virtue: Giving him a safe and reliable laugh line, even if cheesy at times. As the governor wrapped up his remarks Sunday at the event in Derry, he was presented with a gift bag from the host.

“Is it from Kohl’s?” Walker asked, as the audience roared.