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Scott Walker adjusts to the rigor of presidential politics

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential Republican contender for president in 2016, addresses how he'd take on ISIS on the first day of CPAC
Scott Walker: I can take on ISIS 01:33

OXON HILL, Md. -- Scott Walker may have won three elections in the past four years, but he's still finding his way in presidential politics.

The Wisconsin governor made a splash last month in first-to-vote Iowa, wowing Republicans and vaulting to the top of several still-way-too-early polls.

Then came "punts" on questions about evolution, President Barack Obama's love of country and the president's religion. This week Walker compared his political fight against union protesters to America's actual fight against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

"Take your worst day in any state capital around the country, and every day is like that on a presidential campaign," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a senior adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

"The media scrutiny is brutal, the parsing of every quote never ends and all of your opponents -- whether they're from the other party or even inside your own -- has staff solely dedicated to ruining every one of your events or interviews," Madden said.

While Walker has yet to formally announce a White House bid, other Republicans likely to run already view him as a threat in the unofficial race to emerge as the strongest alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early favorite of the party's establishment. Walker's newly formed political action committee opened a national headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, a few days ago, and several key aides are slated to move to town next week.

Walker characterized this week's episodes as media driven.

Dash to 2016: Is presidential hopeful Gov. Scott Walker being too risk-averse? 02:34

"I'm not going to take that bait," the 47-year-old Walker said Saturday about his recent media encounters, while speaking to the Club for Growth's annual winter meeting in Florida. "I'm going to talk about things that everyday Americans want to talk about."

Walker was extending his weekend of presidential politicking to the influential anti-tax group meeting, where some of his 2016 competitors will also be.

Walker's candidacy will be predicated in large part on his actions as Wisconsin's governor: stripping the collective bargaining rights of state workers during his first term, winning a recall election and then re-election despite the determined efforts of organized labor and Democrats to boot him from office.

But while those victories put Walker in an intense spotlight, it doesn't compete with what he'll face in the year leading to the Republican primaries. And his early steps as a top-tier presidential contender have been marked by stumbles.

The latest came on opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, during an energetic speech that seemed to quash concerns that Walker is too bland for presidential politics. Having again shed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, as he did during his January appearance in Iowa, he was nearing the end of his appearance when he was asked about the Islamic State group.

"If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," he said.

2016 GOP presidential hopefuls make their cases at CPAC conference 02:41

The remark was quickly followed by a clarification from Walker's still-new staff, who said he didn't compare the protesters, who spent weeks camped out in the state Capitol in Madison in 2011, to the militants. But the criticism of those who believe he did just that lingered into the next day. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Walker's "judgment is impaired."

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is contemplating a second bid for the Republican presidential nomination, piled on publicly.

"You are talking about, in the case of ISIS, people who are beheading individuals and committing heinous crimes, who are the face of evil," Perry said on MSNBC. "To try to make the relationship between them and the unions is inappropriate."

During a trip to London earlier in the month, Walker refused to say whether he believed in evolution. A week later, he said he didn't know whether President Barack Obama loves America or is a Christian.

Democrats are already using those missteps to raise money.

Frayda Levin, a Club for Growth board member, told Walker during an open question-and-answer session at the Florida meeting that she had heard him described as "not prepared to speak on foreign policy."

Walker said he would appoint qualified advisers if elected, but said national security crises were akin to domestic quandries, describing former President Ronald Reagan's decision to fire 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

"The most important element in foreign policy and national security is leadership," he said.

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