CONCORD, N.H. — As the Republican race for president begins to take shape, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wrapped up his first visit to New Hampshire on Saturday, implying the difference between himself and former Florida governor Jeb Bush is as much about class as it is about issues.
Speaking in front of nearly 400 of the state’s top Republican activists at an event organized by the New Hampshire Republican Party, Walker’s implication was clear: He comes from a different place than Bush, a son and brother of presidents.
Walker noted that through his father, a preacher, and his grandfather, a machinist, he “didn’t inherit fame or fortune.”
“What I got was something more important,” said Walker, who pointed out that he was wearing a sweater he bought for a dollar at Kohl’s. “What I learned was in America if you work hard and play by the rules, you can do anything.”
In packed schedules of mainly private meetings Friday and Saturday, both Walker and Bush made their way across New Hampshire.
Recent polls suggest the pair are front-runners for the GOP nomination, and their oddly similar schedules show just how intense and personal the contest is getting between them.
Both had one-on-one meetings with Mayor Ted Gatsas of Manchester, former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, Republican congressman Frank Guinta, and the conservative publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper as well as interviews at the statewide television station, WMUR.
Bush had two public events compared with Walker’s one, and he appeared more comfortable and freewheeling with voters and reporters than Walker.
Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester, said Walker’s speech was “well-delivered with a down-home comfort level.”
“But with only a single event and limited access to voters and the press, his schedules will need to be more accessible to voters,” Levesque said. “This is the state where voters get to ask the follow-up question, and voters get sharp to campaigns that try to artificially limit access. His exposure to the press during the visit was limited most likely to produce a controlled message, free from potential gaffes.”
Chris Wolfe, a local fund-raiser and activist from Derry, noted another difference between Bush and Walker that was important to him.
“This guy Walker is in the middle of doing things now versus someone who did it 10 years ago,” said Wolfe, who backed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the presidential primary four years ago.
While Walker stressed his humble roots, Bush was discussing the charge that Walker had flip-flopped on some issues, including immigration.
Speaking briefly to reporters while he signed autographs and posed for photos with supporters, Walker conceded that he had changed his position on immigration but batted down charges that he flip-flopped on other issues.
“We have a strong reputation of keeping our word, and the only major issue out there is immigration,” he said. “We listened to the people. This is one where we listened to the people all across the country, particularly border governors, who see how this president messed that up. That’s an issue where I think people want leaders who are willing to listen to people.”
“The other ones out there are just ridiculous,” he added. “I’ve always been a supporter of right-to-work. . . . I’m pro life. My position is consistent on that.”
On immigration, Walker now generally stresses that he wants to see stronger border security and opposes “amnesty” for undocumented workers who came to the United States illegally. In 2006, as Milwaukee County executive, he backed a bipartisan immigration bill that included a path to citizenship, a measure criticized by opponents as “amnesty.”
Walker and Bush aren’t the only potential presidential candidates in New Hampshire in recent days. Last week, former Texas governor Rick Perry and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore visited. On Sunday, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will make stops on the Seacoast and the White Mountains. On Tuesday, former New York governor George Pataki and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will both speak at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Nashua.