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Scott Walker drawing notice with shifting stances

Backs positions that may appeal to conservatives

Wisconsin Gov. Scott WalkerJabin Botsford/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Scott Walker was in favor of a legal pathway for illegal immigrants, then he was against it. And then he was for it again. Maybe.

On so-called Common Core national education standards? He once touted them, now wants to repeal them. On federal ethanol mandates cherished by farmers, particularly in Iowa? Once opposed to them, he now embraces them. His record of shifting stances also applies to abortion and "right to work" legislation that makes it harder for workers to unionize.

As the Wisconsin governor continues to consider running for president, he appears to be following the playbook of Mitt Romney in 2008: Adopt positions that are more conservative than your record, in an attempt to appeal to the Republican base. But the strategy is raising questions about his core convictions, and threatens to take him out of the top tier of candidates in the crucial early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

"These flip-flops or kind of maneuvering on issues has put an end to the Scott Walker honeymoon in Iowa," said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party who now runs the influential website the Iowa Republican. "The thing is, people are looking for consistency and when they look at Walker they're not getting that today.''


Walker and his political staff have been responding to charges for weeks that he has switched his positions on a range of issues. His aides did not respond directly to inquiries from the Globe but pointed to previous comments.

"It's lazy and inaccurate to simply lump all issues into one narrative instead of actually examining the facts," AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker's Our American Revival PAC, told the Associated Press last month.

Walker, best known for battling public service unions in Wisconsin, leapt into the national spotlight in January when he electrified a gathering of Iowa conservatives by urging them "go big and go bold" and nominate a leader with fresh ideas. He has the potential to attract both establishment Republicans who want a nominee with general electorate appeal, and the conservative activists who feel the party has been too quick to nominate moderates.


But as Walker attempts to move further to the right — just as Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, did in 2008 — he's risking charges that he is changing positions for political expediency.

"It's an amazing transformation. It was almost Damascus road-like," said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina political consultant who is unaffiliated with any of the candidates.

"Maybe the feeling in the campaign is that voters are just gullible but I think he's going to have some accountability to deal with," he added. "I'd rather deal with someone I disagree with than someone who changes their position just to endear me to them."

Some of Walker's potential opponents are already seizing on the issue, trying to make the case that they are more grounded in their beliefs and fueling negative news coverage about Walker. The charges could become more pointed once candidates start airing ads on television and debating one another. Conservative protesters would show up at some Romney events dressed in giant flip-flops.

"I think you need to have a backbone," former Florida governor Jeb Bush said during a roundtable in Hudson, N.H. Betting that primary voters will value authenticity, Bush has stuck to his support for Common Core national education standards and a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigration, even though both put him out of step with the Republican base.


Walker is governor of a state with a strong history of electing Democrats, and he has successfully faced voters three times over the last five years — including a tough recall election in 2012 fueled by unions angry that he stripped collective bargaining powers for public employees.

The temptation to now cater to a more conservative Republican electorate is obvious — but like Romney before him, there are inherent risks in taking a blue-state gubernatorial record into some of the country's reddest primary states.

One of Walker's most dramatic shifts has come on one of the most controversial issues, immigration.

He once supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and in 2013 told the Wausau Daily Herald editorial board in Wisconsin that a such a policy "makes sense." He said the immigration debate should focus not on border security but on improving legal immigration.

But as he has laid the groundwork for a presidential campaign, Walker has focused far more on border security. He has also admittedly disavowed his earlier position of allowing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

"My view has changed," he told Fox News in early March. "I'm flat-out saying it. Candidates can say that. Sometimes they don't."

But a few weeks later, his view on immigration appeared to have yet changed again.


During a private dinner at the Copper Door Restaurant in Bedford, N.H., Walker told the group that he supported the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and eventually get citizenship. The account, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was disputed by Walker aides.

Walker has downplayed the idea that he has shifted his positions on any issue besides immigration. But his record is replete with repositioning.

As he courts voters in Iowa, Walker has also grown more accepting of the so-called Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that gasoline contain a certain level of ethanol. Ethanol is made from corn, and no state produces more corn than Iowa.

That appeared to represent a change from his position in 2006, when during an unsuccessful run for governor, Walker took out radio ads critical of legislation that would require gasoline in Wisconsin to include 10 percent ethanol.

"It is clear to me that a big government mandate is not the way to support the farmers of this state," he said in a statement at the time.

After recent criticism for the change, he said that in 2006 he was only referring to Wisconsin legislation, and not speaking about federal mandates. He has also said he would like to phase out the mandates sometime in the future.

At the same Iowa summit, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was unapologetic in his opposition to the standard, saying politicians who back the mandate are panderers. "I don't think Washington should be picking winners and losers," Cruz said. "I think we should have an all-of-the-above approach that is based on markets."


In several cases, Walker has shifted along with others in his party. He once chaired a task force that issued a report praising the state's "rigorous" Common Core education standards, but last year began calling for their repeal.

But he has a lot of company on changing positions on Common Core, which could limit the number of potential rivals willing to criticize him. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have also reversed their support for the standards, with Bush remaining as one of the few who still support them.

Walker, who built much of his national profile on challenging public sector unions in Wisconsin, has also shifted positions on right-to-work legislation.

In 2012, while he was battling the public sector unions, Walker said he would do everything he could to prevent right-to-work legislation from becoming law even though he had backed such legislation going back to 1993. "I have no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation in this state," he told reporters in Wisconsin. "It's not going to get to my desk."

But last month, it did come to his desk and he signed it.

Walker has tried to win back some social conservatives who have been skeptical of his positions on abortion issues. Last fall, during a heated gubernatorial reelection campaign, he ran a 30-second ad that noted while he was antiabortion, he also supported legislation that "leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor."

He also declined at the time to say whether he still believed abortion should be prohibited after 20 weeks, even though he has previously filed legislation doing so and had a 100 percent rating from prolife groups.

But last month, Walker wrote an open letter saying he would sign legislation that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks.

"It's one thing if you have an honest change of position on an issue that you want to clarify," said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who is unaligned in the 2016 contest. "But when it becomes a series of issues where all the sudden you're changing positions, it brings into question your character and integrity. . . . Then, you've got a serious problem that you're spending time explaining — and you're not playing offense."

Matt Viser can be reached at