Paul Steinhauser: Why Walker is on the rise in New Hampshire
CONCORD - In the week since Mitt Romney said "I've decided it is best to give other leaders in the Party the opportunity to become our next nominee," the biggest winner in the race to win New Hampshire's 2016 Republican primary is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, is very well known in the Granite State and would have started the 2016 cycle as the overwhelming favorite to win the first-in-the-nation primary.
With Romney's exit, conventional wisdom indicated that among the likely GOP White House contenders, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would benefit the most in New Hampshire. Bush tops a new University of New Hampshire/WMUR Granite State poll, with the backing of 17% of those likely to vote in next year's Republican primary.
Walker came in second in that survey, grabbing 12% support. And he topped an NH1 Pulse Poll that released a day earlier. Walker stood at 21% in that automated survey, which was the first poll released following Romney's announcement last Friday.
First elected governor in 2010 in a state that leans towards the Democrats, Walker became a national hero to many conservatives thanks to his high profile 2011-2012 battle against state public sector unions over collective bargaining rights.
The two new surveys in New Hampshire were conducted as Walker's star was rising. His speech to conservative activists at the recent Iowa Freedom Summit was very well received by conservative activists and earned him buzz in the national media. And this past weekend Walker was the top choice of likely GOP caucus-goers in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll in Iowa, the state that kicks off the presidential primary and caucus calendar.
"We see certainly a better performance in the polls here than might have been before that. That don't means their voting for him but it means this electorate is going to give him a real chance and take a good hard look at him. And before you can get them to vote for you, you've got to tell them ‘take a look at me,' so I think to that point it's been a good ten days for Scott Walker," said Tom Rath, a veteran Concord based Republican consultant who was a top political adviser to Romney.
Walker's headed to New Hampshire next month, his first visit to the Granite State in a couple of years. The UNH poll indicated that he's not very well known right now among those likely to vote in next year's Republican primary, with nearly half questioned saying they didn't know enough about the Wisconsin governor to form an opinion about him.
But Rath says that voters in New Hampshire are starting to tune into the next race for the White House.
"We've got an electorate that pays attention. That's one of big things that sells our primary year in and year out. It's not just that week before the primary that matters, it's that run up to the primary. They're looking at Walker and he tied that speech and that positive publicity to time a to a time when Mitt Romney said he wasn't running anymore."
Rath adds that Romney's departure "created a vacuum and people began to look around and say ‘who else is there' and in that regard Walker picked a very good time to have a moment in the sun."