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Scott Walker is riding high, but can that last through 2016?

Onstage at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for "bold and aggressive" leadership to resuscitate the American dream, ticking off a list of conservative policies he successfully enacted in his state, from taking on organized labor to reforming teacher tenure and signing a voter identification law.

His speech lit up the activists in the room, and it immediately launched Walker into the top tier of potential Republican presidential candidates, strengthening his standing in early GOP primary polls and securing him a significant measure of visibility. The question now facing Walker is whether he can ride this wave all the way to the Republican nomination.

"Scott Walker needs to show he's not just a flash in the pan," Republican strategist Rick Wilson told CBS News.

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

What the speech accomplished, at least for the time being, was to position Walker as the chief conservative alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who's racking up money and support from the GOP establishment even as his reputation among the party's base remains lackluster.

But it's a long road to the Republican convention, and Walker isn't the only person auditioning for the role of grassroots favorite. The GOP's 2016 bullpen is full of candidates who cross the plausibility threshold - Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, to name a few - and could take a run at the conservative voters who are now giving Walker a first look.

Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, told CBS News that Walker looks like "more than a flavor of the month."

"He has a record in Wisconsin that shows he can endure through many political attacks, and he has a portfolio that could carry him through at least a few primaries," said Zelizer. "He might be an attractive alternative to Jeb Bush for those who aren't comfortable with Jeb Bush.

That said, "I don't know if he's going to last," Zelizer added. "He has a lot of liabilities," including a simmering investigation into his 2014 reelection campaign finances and questions about his lack of a college degree and his knowledge of foreign policy.

Walker's background and record

Scott Walker was born November 2, 1967 in Colorado, the son of a Baptist minister and a bookkeeper. Shortly after his birth, the Walker family moved to Iowa - a fact the governor has proudly brandished during his trips to the state, which holds the nation's first presidential nominating contest. When he was 10, his family relocated to Wisconsin, where Walker has lived ever since.

Walker graduated from high school in 1986 and enrolled at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He withdrew from the school before finishing his degree, however, a fact that makes him the only potential 2016 candidate on either side of the aisle without a college degree (although Rand Paul left Baylor University early, after he was accepted to medical school at Duke University).

He ran for his first political office at 22 years old, narrowly losing a race for a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly. Three years later, he ran again for the assembly and won. He legislated for almost a decade before winning the post of Milwaukee County Executive. He stayed in that job until 2010, when he launched and won a gubernatorial bid.

As governor, Walker pursued an unapologetically conservative agenda: He slashed income taxes and oversaw a reduction in property taxes. He signed a bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion, and he pushed through a law requiring voters to present a photo ID before casting a ballot.

"I don't think there's a single issue where you could point to a Walker policy that puts him anywhere but to the right in his party," Prof. Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, told CBS News last year. "That ideological foundation of his governing and policy style sets him up as an example to other conservatives."

It was Walker's decision to take on organized labor that made him a national name - and a profile in courage, according to conservative activists. In 2011, Walker proposed a bill that would have eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employee unions in Wisconsin. The move sparked raucous protests at the State Capitol building in Madison and prompted Democratic state lawmakers to literally flee the state to deprive Republicans of the votes needed to proceed.

The bill ultimately passed over the objections of Democrats and unions, but the furor surrounding its passage yielded an effort to recall Walker from office. After a fierce battle, Walker prevailed on June 5, 2012, becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt.

Walker's tussle with unions - and his ultimate triumph - endeared him to the conservative base, and some analysts believe it could be his trump card in the GOP nominating contest, enabling him to keep his fans on the right from slipping away to another conservative candidate.

"He's the strongest anti-union republican in the bunch, and that's an issue that resonates both with average Republicans, but also with business Republicans that give a lot of money to the party," said Zelizer. "It defines him."

Franklin said the fight with unions and the recall were a "vital" step in the development of Walker's national profile: "He got a national fundraising base out of that recall election, introducing himself to movers and shakers in the party. That's paying dividends now, and it gives him an advantage over many of the other candidates in the field right now."

"Conservatives know what he did on unions," added Republican strategist and pollster and Frank Luntz, a CBS News contributor. "They are predisposed to like him. He has to turn that like into love."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker responds to illegal fundraising allegations 00:35

His victory was somewhat marred by accusations that Walker's campaign illegally colluded with outside conservative groups on spending and strategy during the recall. Court documents indicate that prosecutors believe Walker solicited money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, an outside group that could amass unlimited donations from undisclosed donors, which then funneled that money into groups supporting the governor in the recall. Walker has denied any wrongdoing, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court could decide this summer whether to throw out the investigation.

"It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court ultimately reinstates the probe," Franklin said.

Despite the campaign finance controversy, Walker won a tough reelection battle in 2014, marking the third time he won a statewide election in Wisconsin in the past four years. Those three victories, especially given Wisconsin's Democratic tilt, could help him set Walker apart from other conservatives in the 2016 conversation.

"Unlike some other Republicans, he has had to compete in a much more blue or purple state," Franklin said. "Walker has had to find his electoral success by keeping a rock-solid grip on Republicans while still appealing to independents."

Scott Walker on the issues

Organized labor: Walker has framed his move to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions as an example of his willingness to take on special interests, and he's argued that the rest of the U.S. needs reforms like the ones he pushed through in his home state.

His battle with unions didn't stop with the recall election, though. On Monday, Walker signed a "right to work" bill into law that bans requirements for private-sector workers to pay union fees. Wisconsin is now the 25th state with such laws, which Walker says will help attract businesses and investment. The White House condemned Walker for signing the legislation, arguing it will harm workers.

Taxes and economic policy: Walker is one of the many conservative governors who carried out pledges to cut taxes. Just last year, he signed a $541 million tax cut into law that helped both families and businesses, bringing the total dollar figure of tax cuts he has signed into law to more than $2 billion. But now, the state is facing a $283 million budget deficit and will skip a $108 million debt payment as a result. He has also drawn fire for another budget-saving tactic: Cutting $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system.

Abortion: In the past, Walker encouraged his fellow Republicans to focus on economic ideas over social issues, but - perhaps with an eye on the conservative caucus-goers he'll need to woo in Iowa if he runs - he has been more pronounced about his stance opposing abortion rights in recent years. In 2013, he signed a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound and barring doctors without admitting privileges at local hospitals from performing abortions. A recent "Open Letter on Life" he penned touts his work defunding Planned Parenthood and preventing abortion from being covered by health plans under the state's insurance exchange. In that same letter, he pledged to sign a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks if it makes it through the Wisconsin legislature. Yet he still has room to convince some skeptics: When his 2014 gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, heavily emphasized abortion in her campaign, Walker ran an ad that said it was an "agonizing decision" but one that the legislation he has signed leaves "to a woman and her doctor."

Governor Scott Walker changed his stance on immigration 00:45

Immigration: Walker openly reversed his position on immigration a few weeks ago, saying on Fox News Sunday, "My view has changed. I'm flat out saying it." The change he spoke of referred to a grainy Wausau Daily Herald video from two years ago showing Walker supporting a conditional path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. "Can you envision a world where with the right penalties and waiting periods and meet the requirements, where those people can get citizenship?" a reporter asks off-screen. In the clip, the governor responds simply: "Sure, yes. I mean, I think it makes sense." But he says he wasn't supporting the concept of amnesty, and has evolved on immigration because of "the way that this president has mishandled that issue."

Why Walker's bid could eventually falter

While Walker is riding high right now, and he possesses some strengths that his conservative rivals might lack, there are a number of pitfalls that could complicate his path to the nomination.

The first and most obvious problem is Jeb Bush, whose entrance into the 2016 conversation late last year dramatically reordered the early landscape. Despite his problems with the base, Bush has steadily been soaking up money and support from establishment Republicans - and that can count for a lot in an expensive, closely-fought primary.

"The money and the endorsements really matter, and right now Jeb Bush is just racking up a lot of points there," Zelizer said. "Walker will need to challenge that to amass a campaign war chest of his own."

Zelizer added it's "not clear" that Walker will be able to mobilize the grassroots to provide small dollar donations, as then-Sen. Obama did in 2008, to counteract Bush's dominance among big donors.

Franklin said Bush's donor network is unquestionably a "huge advantage," but he said he remains skeptical Bush can convert his resources into grassroots support because "he doesn't fit ideologically within the party as comfortably as he did when he was governor of Florida."

Analysts believe Walker's lack of a college degree could also become a liability.

"It can play into a set of questions about how competent he would be as president," Zelizer said. "He's going to have to show he's up to that task, both intellectually and also politically."

Still, Zelizer added, "Sometimes attacks against someone's perceived intelligence can backfire and become a way in which a candidate attacks the establishment and the media."

Franklin suggested Walker's lack of formal education would only become an issue if voters - and the media - begin to perceive he lacks the intellectual curiosity needed to unpack difficult policy questions.

"There wasn't much polling evidence that it was a big issue for him as governor," Franklin said, but if "the question is that he may not know enough about the issues that he's talking about...that criticism could be really damaging."

On that count, Walker has stumbled a bit of late, offering vague, non-specific answers to questions - particularly on foreign policy - that are unlikely to suffice as the nomination battle heats up.

During a Q&A session with members of the Club for Growth in Florida late last month, for example, Walker raised some eyebrows by claiming the most significant policy decision of his lifetime was former President Ronald Reagan's actions to break up a 1981 strike by air traffic controllers, according to the Washington Post.

Scott Walker: I can take on ISIS 01:33

And during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee last month, Walker suggested his experience dealing with protesters in Wisconsin proves he has the mettle to take on America's foreign foes. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," he said.

That comparison immediately drew jeers from Democrats and even a gentle reproach from some Republicans. Some believe it's not the kind of mistake Walker can afford to continue making, with a number of Republican senators in the GOP lineup who are more fluent on foreign policy, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looking like the favorite for the Democratic nomination.

A learning curve on foreign policy "is a challenge faced by a lot of governors who run for president," Zelizer said. "There are always those questions that trip them up."

"If Hillary Clinton is the opponent," he added, "a lot of Republicans will be wondering how will [Walker] will deal with her in that arena, especially if foreign policy issues loom large."

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