By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Scott Walker had a breakthrough moment at a forum for conservatives in Iowa. Now the Wisconsin governor has to find a way to break from the pack of politicians considering a U.S. presidential run in 2016.
Walker, 47, stood out among a long list of potential candidates who sought the attention of a thousand conservative grassroots activists at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday.
Coatless with his shirt sleeves rolled up, Walker talked up his conservative record as governor, including his defeat of a 2012 recall effort over his challenge to the collective bargaining process for most public unions.
Trailing potential rivals in campaign organization and fund-raising, Walker lacks the name recognition of such party heavyweights as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The first contest in the nominating process is a year away, but Bush's early decision to explore a run for the Republican nomination has accelerated the race, and the scramble is on to build donor networks and attract talented staff.
"Will Governor Walker be able to compete in a field that has proven major financial players? I know that’s an issue that those in his camp are sensitive to," said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
All told, Walker has won three statewide elections in four years, defeating the recall effort and emerging triumphant in votes in 2010 and last November.
NO 'TAP-DANCING' AROUND ISSUES
"That sends a powerful message to Republicans in Washington and around the country: if you're not afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results," Walker said.
People at the Iowa Freedom Summit liked what they heard.
"He didn't do any tap-dancing around the issues," said Bob Gough of Lee's Summit, Missouri. "A lot of people describe the problems we’re having but didn’t kind of close the loop on how it has to get fixed, and I think Scott described the changes that he had made and the things that need to be done."
The recall effort over the union dispute put Walker in the spotlight and made him a darling of the right. The national donor network that raised money for him in the recall fight could come to his aid and help him stand out in a field of a dozen candidates or more.
"He'll face money issues like everybody else, but he will be competitive like everybody else," said Kurt Bauer, head of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
Since Wisconsin adjoins Iowa, Walker would need to do well in the Iowa caucuses a year from now to catapult himself to the next nominating contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
He has begun building a team, with the hiring of David Polyansky as senior presence in Iowa and Rick Wiley as campaign manager, and his next step is to form a political action committee to raise money.
But he also has to think beyond Iowa.
Unlike Christie, who has paid a lot of attention to New Hampshire as he considers a run, Walker has not made many inroads in the state that holds the first presidential primary. He will appear there on March 14.
"He starts at the bottom," said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "There's a path for him no doubt about that. But there's going to be a lot of competition, and it's going to take more than one good day in Iowa to launch his candidacy."
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)