WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Nearly three years before the 2016 election, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took center stage in Iowa to address a large Republican fundraising dinner, which should only fuel speculation about his future presidential ambitions.
Walker, who survived a bitter recall effort in his home state in 2011 after he repealed collective bargaining rights for most public employees, emphasized his Iowa roots at a county dinner, and said the GOP should look to its roster of governors for a leader in the future.
“We should look to our states, to our governors, to our state legislative leaders to show the pathway we take not only in our states but in our country to move forward,” the Wisconsin governor told more than 600 people in attendance at the annual Polk County GOP dinner. “Optimism, relevance, and courage I think are the three keys to success in 2014, 2016 and beyond.”
The first-term governor, who is up for re-election in 2014, has pushed a reformist message for fellow Republicans (similar to the themes he stressed during speeches at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference as well as the National Rifle Association's annual meeting).
Those themes assume a greater significance, though, in Iowa, the state which hosts the first presidential nominating contest every four years.
“The president and his allies they simply measure success by how many people are dependent on the government, how many people are on Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment compensation,” Walker said. “We should measure success by how many people are not.”
Walker's work to curb collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, a stronghold of organized labor, has made him a hero among conservatives — and boosted his prospects as a dark horse contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
“If I wanted to lay the groundwork for a presidential run in Iowa, I would be doing precisely what Gov. Walker is doing right now,” Republican activist Dave Funk said.
If Walker does decide to run for president, he has clear advantages in Iowa. He lived in northeastern Iowa when he was young -- mentioning during the speech that he stopped in Plainfield on his way to Des Moines tonight. He also represents a neighboring state, something which Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad thinks gives Walker an edge in the Hawkeye State.
“I think he might do well. He is a Midwesterner. He is a problem solver. He is a grassroots, down to earth guy that I think the kind of people Iowans like,” Branstad told reporters prior to the dinner.
Previous speakers at the Robb Kelley Club Annual Spring Dinner have included Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich – both of whom ran for president in 2012.
But Walker downplayed the implications of his speech in Iowa – chalking it up to simply repaying a favor.
“Brandstad's a good friend of mine,” Walker told NBC’s Milwaukee affiliate WTMJ Thursday morning. “He did an event for me last year when I was running in the recall election. He, like other Governors across the country, have asked me to attend events and sparingly where I can occasionally I go to some and this is one of those."
Other potential 2016 presidential candidates have been sure to include Iowa on their list of places to stop. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke at the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner in Cedar Rapid’s earlier this month, and former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 Iowa Caucus winner Rick Santorum is scheduled to speak in August at the Lyon County GOP Dinner.
This story was originally published on Thu May 23, 2013 11:05 PM EDT