When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sets foot Friday in the Rio Grande Valley, it won't be your typical photo op on the border.
The likely presidential candidate is arriving in the region amid swirling questions about his position on an issue expected to factor prominently into the 2016 race: what exactly the United States should do with the 11 million people living in the country illegally. Walker has previously said he supports letting those immigrants ultimately obtain citizenship, a position strongly opposed by many of the voters he would need to win the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
Walker is visiting the region with help of a Texas Republican whose border bona fides are far more honed: Greg Abbott. The Texas governor, who's leading the charge against President Obama's executive action on immigration, is expected to serve as Walker's tour guide Friday, letting him ride along with him in a helicopter over the border. Before Walker firmed up his plans, Abbott was already scheduled to be in the area for a briefing by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The tour comes a day after reports surfaced that Walker told a private audience in New Hampshire this month that he supported allowing undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens. The remarks, which Walker's team disputed, seemed at odds with his admission earlier this year that he no longer supports a pathway to citizenship.
"My view has changed. I'm flat out saying it," Walker said March 1 on Fox News. "Candidates can say that. Sometimes they don't."
Walker's supporters insist the shift is indicative of a man who is willing to be straight with the public about where he stands. That's done little to satisfy Walker's critics on the right, where the party faithful is scrambling to rally behind a conservative foil to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who backs a pathway to citizenship.
"Gov. Walker has shifted his position on immigration too much for me to trust what he has to say at this point in time," said Julie McCarty, a Texas Tea Party activist. While she expressed hope that Walker would come around, and called the border trip a "great start," she said, "Until he's ready to face the truth and talk seriously about immigration, his opinion will fall grossly short."
The tour sets Abbott up in a comfortable spot for 2016: chief ambassador to the border for White House hopefuls. But it also puts him in the spotlight with a likely presidential candidate who is vying for political oxygen with Abbott's protege, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and Abbott's predecessor, former Gov. Rick Perry.
Both Texans are hoping their border-state experience and high-profile clashes with the federal government will set them apart in a crowded field for the GOP nomination.
"Gov. Perry made border security a top priority, including deploying the Texas National Guard and increasing law enforcement personnel in areas being exploited by criminal activity," Perry spokesman Travis Considine said in a statement. "Gov. Perry believes more leaders should visit the border in Texas to learn first-hand about the challenges our country faces that Washington continues to ignore."
Brandon Scholz, a Madison, Wis., lobbyist and Republican strategist, called the Wisconsin governor's recent remarks on immigration an "expansion of what he's talked about in the past" — not a reversal. The episode shows Walker is open and honest as he forms his positions on issues that a Wisconsin governor would not naturally encounter, Scholz added.
"Now that the governor's on a national stage, there are a lot more issues at play, and there's a lot more scrutiny," Scholz said. "You have to give some people some leeway."
Walker does not appear to be having any problems making inroads in Texas. A February University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found Walker had eaten away at Cruz's lead among Texas Republicans, statistically tying him for first place among their 2016 presidential picks. And Walker has brought on board Austin fundraiser Susan Lilly to help navigate the state's well-stocked donor community.
On Saturday, Walker is scheduled to headline the Harris County GOP's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Houston, a star-studded event unlikely to dim the spotlight on his presidential ambitions.
"I would say on the ground here, we're a year out from the primary election and a lot of candidates are just starting to jump in," said Paul Simpson, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. "Folks want to hear what he has to say, and we're going to give him a fair hearing."