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Wis. governor to court Iowans, stoke 2016 talk

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 4:50pm  ET

FILE - In this March 16, 2013, file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gestures as he speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. Another year, another campaign. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is gearing up for re-election next year, his third race in four years. But his courting of outside-the-state donors and conservatives, plans to visit Iowa this week and refusal to say whether he would serve out another full term suggest he might be seeking a much bigger prize _ the presidency. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

KEN THOMAS
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Another year, another campaign.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is gearing up for re-election next year, his third race in four years. But the Republican's courting of out-of-state donors and conservatives, his plans to visit Iowa this week and his refusal to say whether he would serve out another full term if elected suggest he might be seeking a much bigger prize -- the presidency.

Not that he will openly acknowledge as much.

"I love being governor," Walker said recently, just two years after bursting onto the national political scene when he challenged public unions and a year after surviving a recall election. "I've had to work hard for it. I'm focused on being governor, and I'm going to continue to be governor as long as the people of the state want me to be governor."

Such remarks are common these days as the 45-year-old seeks to simmer down the buzz about his political future even as his travel schedule suggests he has clear national aspirations, perhaps as early as 2016.

Walker spent part of this week at fundraisers in Connecticut for the state Republican Party and in New York City for the New York State Republican Committee.

On Thursday he planned to travel to Iowa, traditionally home of the nation's first presidential caucus, to address Republican activists at the Polk County GOP fundraiser in West Des Moines.

Walker's advisers insist he is focused on his 2014 re-election campaign. But they acknowledge they have talked privately about a possible future presidential bid. Still, they say they are not building a campaign, taking formal steps to run, or even developing a plan for how Walker would do so.

They play down the Iowa appearance by contending that Walker simply was returning a favor to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who invited Walker to Thursday's event and held a fundraiser for him in Dubuque, Iowa, during the 2012 recall election.

Yet Walker has taken a number of steps to put him in a position to undertake a presidential bid if he were to win a second term.

He's appealed to national conservatives, who make up the core of GOP presidential primary voters, with series of high-profile speeches to the National Rifle Association's annual meeting and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

In June, he will speak the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an event organized by Ralph Reed, and headline a Republican Jewish Coalition fundraiser in California.

A prodigious fundraiser, Walker has focused on keeping active, if not building upon, a national donor network that was critical in helping him beat back the recall attempt.

Aside from the Northeast fundraisers this week, he's also continuing to engage his top donors, who helped him raise nearly $35 million in 2011 and 2012, about two-thirds of which came from outside Wisconsin. They include Diane Hendricks, the owner of ABC Supply Co., in Beloit, Wis.; Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, owners of Illinois-based U-Line Corp.; Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson; and Wyoming billionaire Foster Freiss.

At the same time, Walker is working on a book that's expected to be published this fall about the union fight.

His conservative record as governor and advice to fellow Republicans suggest a possible approach to a candidacy.

In an era in which Washington remains toxic to voters, Walker presents himself as a reform-minded outsider who pushed an effort to strip public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. It's a fight, he says, that's now paying dividends for the state.

He regularly counsels Republicans to stay relevant to the needs of voters, present an optimistic outlook and have the courage to take on major problems, offering himself up as Exhibit A.

Walker came into office in 2011 facing a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall. He balanced it through deep cuts to public and higher education, in addition to forcing public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits. He also signed a measure allowing Wisconsin residents to carry concealed weapons, and a bill giving legal protection to homeowners who shoot and kill intruders on their property.

This year, Walker's signature initiatives focus on cutting income taxes by more than $340 million and expanding the state's private school voucher program beyond the two cities where it's now offered.

The state's budget outlook has a $500 million surplus, and Walker has said he favors using some of that money to deepen his income tax cut and give schools more money.

Still, Walker is far from meeting his main 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 private sector jobs in his term. So far, the state has created only about 62,000 jobs, leaving Wisconsin near the bottom nationally.

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