DES MOINES — Gov. Scott Walker marked his second visit to the early presidential nominating state of Iowa on Saturday by shifting his stance on a key issue for a politically connected group of Iowa farmers and business people.
At the inaugural Iowa Ag Summit, Walker came out in support of continuing the federal renewable fuel standard, which for the past decade has required transportation fuels include a minimum amount of renewable energy, such as corn-based ethanol.
“It’s something I’m willing to go forward on, continuing the renewable fuel standard,” Walker said. “Eventually you don’t need to have a standard. But you can’t get to that unless you deal with market access.”
In 2006, as a candidate for governor, Walker said of federal ethanol requirements: “Mandates hurt Wisconsin’s working families, and whether they are from Washington or Madison, we as fiscal conservatives should oppose them.”
Walker’s shift on ethanol comes as he leads in the latest Iowa polls for the 2016 GOP presidential contest. His rise to the top tier began a little more than a month ago after a rousing speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit, and he has been rapidly putting together a campaign infrastructure in the state.
Walker got a warm reception at the Ag Summit, where he answered agriculture-related questions for 20 minutes from hog and ethanol magnate Bruce Rastetter, who was host. He was the last of nine potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates who spoke at the event.
One of the lead sponsors was a new pro-ethanol group, America’s Renewable Future, led by Eric Branstad, son of the current Republican governor, and Derek Eadon, a veteran Iowa campaign strategist. The group is a fierce supporter of the federal renewable fuel standard and plans to back presidential candidates who share their view.
Eadon said afterward that Walker’s answer, though not as clear-cut as some of the other speakers, was “very positive” and similar to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s attempt at balancing free-market principles with the interests of Iowa corn farmers and ethanol plant owners.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview Friday that he expects the winner of the Iowa caucus next February will be a strong supporter of the renewable fuel standard. He noted that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who hovered in the single digits throughout 2011 before winning the 2012 Iowa caucus, backed the standard.
“When agriculture was profitable maybe it wasn’t as big of an issue, but now when farmers are losing almost a dollar a bushel in producing corn, it’s critically important,” Branstad said. “It is a big issue and a lot of people are going to pay attention to how the candidates stand on this issue.”
Among the topics Rastetter congenially quizzed Walker about were immigration, wind energy, trade with Cuba and labeling genetically modified food, which Walker said he opposes. Walker got some of his biggest applause in response to a question about food stamps when he talked about requiring in Wisconsin that beneficiaries be drug free and seeking a job.
But Walker critics focused on his response to the ethanol question.
“If Scott Walker thinks pandering on ethanol is going to convince people he’s anything but backwards on energy and the environment he can think again,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Jason Pitt said.
Earlier in the day, dozens of Iowa union demonstrators gathered outside the event, still angry at his comments comparing his stand against 100,000 protesters to his readiness to handle Islamic State terrorists. Charlie Wishman, secretary/treasurer of the Iowa AFL-CIO, who participated in the 2011 Madison rallies, said Walker’s statement was “absurd and offensive.”
“That’s not the kind of divisive leadership people are looking for,” Wishman said.
Walker came into the state favored by one in four likely caucus voters among a dozen potential 2016 presidential contenders. Before his breakout performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit in late January, his poll numbers were averaging in the mid-single digits.
“When Jeb Bush was looking at getting in, people thought that he might be the favorite,” said Steve Grubbs, the top Iowa strategist for Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. “That’s no longer the case. The ground has shifted. Many now consider Scott Walker the frontrunner.”
Since the Freedom Summit, Walker has hired a raft of state and national political operatives for his pre-campaign nonprofit group, Our American Revival, opened an office in a nondescript suburban Des Moines strip mall and faced an onslaught of national media scrutiny. Last week a national abortion rights group ran a full-page ad in the Des Moines Register signed by Wisconsin citizens contrasting Walker’s shifting statements on the hot-button issue saying, “Walker cannot be trusted.”
Last weekend he sustained his momentum in the nascent 2016 contest, placing second in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll behind Paul, who didn’t attend the latest presidential cattle call at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
Also appearing Saturday were Bush, who is making his first stop in the Hawkeye State this year; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; former New York Gov. George Pataki; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; and Santorum.
Many of the potential candidates are already scooping up key strategists and staff, as well as local party support. Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann said Walker is quickly catching up to others such as Perry and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who like Walker have Iowa leadership teams in place, but also have started hiring grassroots organizers.
Kaufmann, who is remaining neutral in the caucus contest, said Walker was the first potential candidate to seek his help, which he offered in the form of an introduction during a telephone town hall meeting with Walker and party activists in early February.
“I see him making a lot of good decisions,” Kaufmann said. He added that at this point there are anywhere from six to nine contenders who could win the Iowa caucus.
“What’s going to begin separating the candidates is who begins doing the full Grassley,” he said, referring to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s practice of visiting all of the state’s 99 counties.
Walker’s nonprofit announced last week that Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart, Marshall County Treasurer Jarret Heil and four Iowa state senators — Brad Zaun, Randy Feenstra, Dan Zumbach and Tom Shipley — were joining his Iowa leadership team. Airhart is chairman of the Iowa Republican County Officials Association.
On Friday, Zaun was reattaching the Our American Revival sign above the entrance of Walker’s new office, which was previously the state campaign headquarters of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The sign quotes Walker saying that “Washington, D.C., is 68 square miles surrounded by reality,” a riff on former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus’ pronouncement about Madison. The sign had been installed a day earlier with roofing nails, but a stiff Iowa wind knocked it down.
Zaun, wielding a claw hammer with a former hardware salesman’s aplomb, said he has followed Walker’s political rise closely, even visiting Madison on unrelated business on June 5, 2012, when Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall. He met with Walker before the Freedom Summit and agreed to join his cause.
“I don’t have to do a lot of hard-selling of Scott Walker,” Zaun said, ticking off Walker’s union battles, fiscal discipline, education policies and anti-abortion record. “He’s the easiest sell that I’ve ever experienced.”
Securing the support of Zaun and other party activists will be critical for Walker to finish strong in the Iowa caucuses. The sooner he can nail people down, the better, said University of Iowa political science professor Cary Covington.
“It’s opened a lot of doors for him certainly,” Covington said of Walker’s performance at the Freedom Summit. “It’s going to remain for him to walk through them and close the door. He made a really good first impression and you can’t underestimate the value of that.”
After the event Saturday, Walker skipped taking questions from reporters or signing autographs to fly to a fundraiser with U.S. Rep. Rod Blum in Dubuque. He planned to return to Des Moines for a meeting Sunday with his Iowa political team. Next up he’ll visit the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
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