DES MOINES, Iowa — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker vowed this weekend to spend a lot of time in Iowa, in a declaration seen as his unofficial launch of a presidential campaign that many Republicans say has the potential to unify a fractured party next year.
Republican Party observers said Mr. Walker’s performance Saturday at the Iowa Freedom Summit, where many of the White House hopefuls made their early cases to activists, mixed style and substance in a way that could appeal to different factions that have struggled to settle on a champion in back-to-back presidential elections.
Strolling back and forth on the stage with his sleeves rolled up, Mr. Walker cast himself as a conservative warrior. He said he has overcome death threats and opposition from big-government special interest groups to enact “common-sense conservative reforms” that have strengthened his state and national model for Republicans.
He said surviving a recall election in his first term and his re-election to a second term last year in a state that has voted Democratic in presidential elections for three decades now is a signal that voters will reward elected leaders who are not “afraid to go big and go bold.”
“Scott Walker has something going on in Iowa,” said Craig Robinson, a former Republican Party operative who now runs the Iowa GOP website. “I am not saying that one good speech makes an Iowa front-runner, but I will say that what we saw from Scott Walker was a candidate that can do extremely well not just in Iowa, but against the entire field. This is the advantage of having a strong record.”
Saturday’s forum, hosted by Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Citizens United, attracted more than a half-dozen possible presidential contenders vying to prove their conservative stripes to the 1,200 activists in attendance. The speakers included two previous winners of the Iowa caucuses: former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
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Mr. Huckabee told the crowd that he no longer supports the Common Core education standards that have become controversial among conservatives.
“Common Core may have originally been a governor-controlled states initiative to keep the fickle federal fingers of fate off of education,” Mr. Huckabee said. “It has morphed into a frankenstandard that nobody, including me, can support.”
In speeches that covered issues such as spending, Obamacare, immigration and same-sex marriage, the candidates urged voters not to compromise their principles in a vain search for someone the Republican establishment tells them is electable.
“Talk is cheap,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “If you say you will stand up to the Washington establishment, to the career politicians of both parties, who have gotten us into this mess, show me where you’ve stood up and fought.”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took a dig at former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by arguing that the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination doesn’t have a record to run on.
“We must understand our role in the world — which is to lead — and the nature of our allies and, especially, our adversaries,” she said. “Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something.”
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to assure Iowa voters that he shares their conservative values, including on pro-life issues.
“Political consultants told me that there was no way I could be elected governor of New Jersey as a pro-life Republican because it had never been done before. They were wrong,” Mr. Christie said. “I can assure you being pro-life is not a political liability.”
But many of the questions surrounded Mr. Walker. Activists wondered before the gathering whether the Wisconsin governor could excite the grass-roots activists who will play an oversized role in the Iowa caucuses, which will kick off the nomination contest in a year.
Mr. Walker thanked the 1,200 conservatives who turned out for their support and prayers during his showdowns with public employee unions. He said supporters helped his family get through dark days when people were threatening to assassinate him and “gut my wife like a deer.”
However, he shied away from the thorny issue of immigration, a subject that took center stage thanks to Mr. King, who has been a leading critic of the Obama administration’s temporary executive amnesties and chastised both parties for not cracking down harder on illegal immigration.
The party has been divided on the issue. Some caution that Democrats will use Mr. King’s immigration rhetoric to portray the party in a negative light among Hispanic voters, a bloc where Republicans hope to make inroads next year.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s speech was interrupted by immigration rights activists.
The event also offered a reminder that conservative activists have little appetite for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is a brother and son to former presidents.
Donald Trump, who once again is teasing the idea of a run, said Mr. Romney “choked” in the 2012 election and that the party should not settle for Mr. Bush.
“It can’t be Mitt because he ran and failed,” Mr. Trump said, sparking applause from those in attendance. Then he whipped the crowd into another frenzy when he warned against nominating Mr. Bush, whose stances on immigration and K-12 education standards known as Common Core have turned off activists. “The last thing we need is another Bush,” he said.
Although activists praised Mr. Christie for showing up and demonstrating a commitment to Iowa, Mr. Walker was hailed as someone who could unite the voters Mr. Christie appeals to as well as hard-core social conservatives.
David Bossie, the head of Citizens United, said he loves the way Mr. Walker drives liberal Democrats “completely crazy.”
“They have tried to destroy him, and time and time again he shows them that he is here to stay,” Mr. Bossie said, complimenting the Wisconsin governor for beating back unions, enacting stricter voter ID laws and rejecting Obamacare.
“He is putting conservative principles into action in his state, and they are working. In every fight for conservative principles, Gov. Walker has stood firm, stood strong and merged victorious,” he said.
Dan Hartman, 56, said he respected the way that Mr. Walker took on the unions.
“He put up a big fight,” Mr. Hartman said. “I think he is soft-spoken and he is no-nonsense. He is not a big blowhard like a lot of these folks, and I think he actually could do something. I think his demeanor is appealing.”
Mr. Walker vowed to return to Iowa “many more times” — the latest sign that he is gearing up for a presidential run.
The Des Moines Register reported Friday that Mr. Walker has hired David Polyansky as a senior adviser. Earlier this month, he tapped former Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley to put together a political organization.