- Associated Press - Monday, January 14, 2013

MADISON, Wis. — Scott Walker became a conservative darling when, as a new Republican governor, he launched a bold — and successful — effort to break the power of public-employee unions in his traditionally pro-labor state, and then survived a union-led campaign to recall him.

Clearly, he was a man on a mission.

But now as Republican governors stake out a new array of conservative goals in the dozens of state legislatures the party controls, Mr. Walker has decided to lie low. Instead of taking what many see as the next steps on a likely to-do list, such as making Wisconsin a right-to-work state or pushing tougher immigration laws, he is preaching moderation and calm. He has also backed away from proposals such as eliminating the state’s same-day voter registration.

“We’re not going to do things that are going to bring 80,000 or 100,000 people into the Capitol,” Mr. Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal shortly before the legislative session began. “It’s just not going to happen again.”

The sudden softening of one of Republican America’s most combative governors is surprising to some, given that Mr. Walker set the tone for conservatives on the march after the party swept to victory across the Midwest and Southwest in the 2010 elections.

Within weeks of taking office, he stripped public-employee unions of their collective-bargaining rights, cut state spending and began passing a wave of business-friendly legislation. Months of boisterous union protests at the Capitol, followed by the recall attempt, became a national political spectacle.

Democrats are skeptical that Mr. Walker won’t still come out with another surprise, such as his sudden move against the unions two years ago.

“All the talk about moderation and bipartisanship we’re hearing him say doesn’t mean anything until you do it,” said Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen.

But others see Mr. Walker’s new aversion to conflict as the sign of someone concerned about re-election in 2014 and mindful of his image as a potential national candidate in the future.

“He has to spend the next two years, as he’s developing his national profile, showing that he can govern without the state devolving into chaos,” said Scot Ross, leader of a liberal advocacy group.

Unlike other Republican leaders, Mr. Walker doesn’t have to worry about impatient conservatives agitating for change.

“We’re still rock solid behind him,” said Nancy Milholland, organizer of a tea party group in Racine. “We’re blessed to have him as a governor because he’s such a stellar conservative. People around the country love this governor.”

Still, with union membership in the Midwest declining, passing right to work in Wisconsin would be “within the realm of possibility” if Mr. Walker and his Republican-led Legislature were so inclined, said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee.

But Mr. Walker isn’t willing, seeming intent on trying to improve his job-growth record in the state and tending to other lower-key issues.

Mr. Walker will outline his agenda for the next year in his State of the State address on Tuesday. In addition to a tax-cut proposal, he is expected to offer more plans for workforce development, though details may not come until his budget is released in February. He is also expected to seek an expansion of school vouchers in the state.