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Understated Walker stays on top in N.H. primary

After an appearance in Concord last Saturday, Scott Walker (left) spoke with New Hampshire resident John Downs.
After an appearance in Concord last Saturday, Scott Walker (left) spoke with New Hampshire resident John Downs.(Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Scott Walker arrived in a hotel function hall through the back, initially all but unnoticed at last weekend’s packed Rockingham County GOP Freedom Founders dinner.

Walker — slight of build, thrifty in dress, and with thinning hair — makes a quiet entrance. It’s of a piece with the unassuming personal image cultivated by the two-term governor of Wisconsin just as he has constructed the sterling conservative credentials that vaulted him to the front of the Republican presidential pack.

Polls show him running first in Iowa’s early caucuses, and near the top of the field in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

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Granite State political veterans say Walker could become a sort of “Goldilocks” candidate — not too extreme in personal style or his lightly sketched presidential platform — but just right for attracting the largest swath of GOP primary voters. While other top candidates, such as former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, have policy positions that put off the GOP faithful, Walker’s candidacy so far has proven, for his party’s voters, palatable enough.

“I don’t think he’s bringing baggage in, and he’s a new face, and people like that,” said state Senate majority leader Jeb Bradley, a former GOP congressman who has not backed a candidate this cycle. “He comes across as somebody who’s a problem-solver, not really full of himself, so it’s not surprising that he’s doing well in New Hampshire.”

The early GOP field is vast this season, numbering as many as 20 announced or potential candidates. Some Republicans have sought to maximize their potential by courting their niches. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, plays well to his party’s Christian conservative wing, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky appeals to more libertarian-minded Republicans.

At a Saturday afternoon event in Concord, Walker faced sharp questioning from some attendees, which Juliana Bergeron, the state’s national committeewoman, found significant.

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“I think that says something about where he is in the rankings here,” she said, noting that Walker has failed to rile any serious pockets of opposition among the primary electorate.

Walker’s trip last weekend to New Hampshire was his third since forming a PAC in January.
Walker’s trip last weekend to New Hampshire was his third since forming a PAC in January.(Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)

Walker’s trip to New Hampshire over the weekend was his third since forming a political action committee in January. Walker told reporters he needs strong finishes — “that means first, second, or third” — in each of the first four voting states, which are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

If Walker can preserve his lead in Iowa, a Granite State victory would cement front-runner status and provide him with an early claim on the nomination. No non-incumbent Republican has won both states in the modern primary era.

Veteran New Hampshire Republicans say Walker faces fewer of the political impediments that are hampering other candidates. Bush, for instance, considered a favorite in the state’s primary, suffers from voter fatigue with one of the nation’s preeminent political families. His support for Common Core educational standards and overhauling immigration laws draws ire from local Republicans.

Other, more tactically minded voters worry that choosing Bush would strip Republicans of one of their chief arguments against Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton: that she represents a vestige of the nation’s political past, while their nominee could project a more forward-looking image.

Other Republican candidates considered top-tier contenders have their own shortcomings. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has peeled off swaths of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s supporters, has undergone an awkward dance on immigration, and carries the taint of Washington in a party sour on the capital.

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Paul has thrilled the party’s libertarian wing, but angered the faction of the party focused on national security with, among other measures, his recent move to block the Patriot Act’s extension.

Walker aides say they hope his reputation as a fearless, principled executive will appeal to New Hampshire’s voters. Walker famously confronted his state’s public employee unions, earning national attention — and opprobrium — by abolishing many collective-bargaining rights. He has cut taxes and brags about drawing 100,000 protesters to the Capitol in Madison.

He survived a recall election in 2012 and won reelection in 2014.

Walker is “staking out not quite a right-wing, but a center-right lane,” said former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen.
Walker is “staking out not quite a right-wing, but a center-right lane,” said former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen.(Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe)

Walker’s stump speech dwells on his governorship in a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1984, a point particularly salient among Republicans in New Hampshire, which has gone blue in five of the last six elections.

“We’ve taken on the big fights on issue after issue after issue that people who support common-sense conservative reforms want, and we won them,” Walker said after the Concord event.

Some activists said Walker’s standard presentation is too heavy on his record, and not prescriptive enough about what he would do if elected.

Walker has also taken criticism for his policy shifts, notably his own frequent evolutions on immigration. Earlier this year, he took a hard-right stance by suggesting limits on legal immigration.

That issue cropped up Saturday during a “politics and pie” event in Concord, where exchanges occasionally grew sharp. Former state Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen told Walker he had been disappointed with Walker’s stance on immigration.

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“I respectfully disagree,” Walker replied, adding that he wanted to prioritize the impact on American workers’ wages.

Inside the sweltering Concord lodge, Walker won positive reviews for his moves to restrict the role of teacher tenure in school administration, require photo identification for voters, and breaking the unions. As it would later in Manchester, Walker’s voice rose almost exclusively when he admonished the Obama administration against dealing with Iran.

The scattered criticism of Walker startled some senior Republicans.

“I was sorry that some people felt the need to go after him a little bit,” said Bergeron, who was among those fanning themselves with paper plates inside the lodge. “It’s usually a pretty friendly crowd.”

Cullen, who is thus far unaffiliated with any campaign, said of Walker, “He’s staking out not quite a right-wing, but a center-right lane.” Noting that New Hampshire generally gives the nod to a prominent centrist in the field, Cullen added, “He seems to be running a little bit to the right of that.”

At the Concord dinner, Walker explained that his lilac-festooned tie was a gift earlier in the day during a house party at the home of state Representative Brian Gallagher. Lilacs are New Hampshire’s state flower.

“I’ve asked him to wear a million ties,” Walker’s wife, Tonette, said after the dinner, noting that the bold floral tie had drawn her attention throughout his speech.

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Walker smiled at her, adding, “If you’re a New Hampshire voter, I will.”


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.