HOUSTON — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made his presidential pitch in Texas on Saturday night, touting his fighting spirit and Midwestern thriftiness before a crowd of Harris County Republicans who will have no shortage of choices in 2016.
Walker, who has emerged as an early front-runner for the GOP's nomination, cited his experience battling labor unions and saving taxpayers' money in Wisconsin as a template for a nation he said is on a worrisome path under President Obama.
"There's no doubt with the right leadership in Washington, we can transform America just like we transformed the states, and we're going to do that after the 2016 election," Walker said, addressing the Harris County Republican Party's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner here.
Walker's 2011 clash with unions over legislation curtailing the rights of public workers factored prominently into his speech, and he made sure to emphasize the national scale of it by calling out Texans who stood by him throughout it.
"So many of you here in this state helped us out," Walker told his audience in Houston, recognizing those who donated to his recall campaign, traveled to Wisconsin to show their support and organized from afar.
Walker also recited another story well-known to his followers, recalling how he and his wife recently used a stockpile of coupons to get a good deal on a shirt at the department store Kohl's. He used the blue-collar anecdote to tout his recipe for economic growth in Wisconsin and the rest of the country.
"That's what I think about your money — the taxpayers' money," Walker said. "I could charge a few of you a lot. Some of you might be able to afford and pay for it, but we can broaden the base by lowering the rates and more people will participate in the economy."
Walker took a relatively brief detour into foreign policy but nonetheless got some of his loudest applause of the night on the topic. Bringing some members of the audience to their feet, Walker said that as America confronts terrorist threats at home and abroad, it needs more than ever a "commander in chief who’s going to stand up and call it what it is": radical Islam.
In addition to Obama, Walker took a few swipes at Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016. The Wisconsin governor grouped her in with Democrats who "measure success in government by how many people are dependent on the government.”
While Walker mostly stuck to what has become his standard stump speech, he nodded to Texas on more than one occasion. He likened Austin to Madison, the Wisconsin capital city that has earned a reputation as "30 square miles surrounded by reality." And Walker admitted Wisconsin is still catching up to the Lone Star States when it comes to job growth.
"Some day when we grow up, we want to be Texas," Walker said.
Walker was introduced by Gov. Greg Abbott, who served as his tour guide Friday on the Texas-Mexico border. Abbott lavished Walker with praise for the conservative policies he has championed in Wisconsin, calling him a "man who governs like a Texan" and complimenting his "political spine of steel" — a reference to Abbott's own paralyzing accident that left him with two steels rods in his back. Abbott also acknowledged Walker's presidential ambitions, a somewhat sensitive topic given the many candidates with ties to Texas eying the White House.
"Scott Walker has now won the governorship of Wisconsin three times, despite the fact that no presidential candidate has won Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan," Abbott said. "But that might just change in 2016."
Walker probably was not the only White House hopeful on attendees' minds Saturday night. The dinner was held in honor of former President George H.W. Bush, who got his political start in Harris County and whose son Jeb is another all-but-certain 2016 candidate. And U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who made his run official Monday, recorded a video to mark the occasion, but the crowd was told "events seemed to transpire this week that prevented that video from getting here."