WASHINGTON (AP) — Criticizing Washington as a city of power-hungry elites, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Friday offered a preview of his likely White House message between private job interviews with those looking to help his expected presidential campaign.
"As much as I like coming here, I love going home even more," Walker said during a speech delivered just a block from the White House complex.
Sounding familiar campaign themes of smaller government, greater accountability and general distaste for the nation's capital, Walker looked to use his visit to build interest in his potential campaign. Privately, he was expanding his political operation as he fights for early momentum in the crowded field of GOP White House prospects.
"The best way we move this country is by transferring power from Washington out to the hardworking people of this country," Walker said during his first address to a Washington audience this year.
It was his only speaking engagement in a day packed with private meetings and job interviews related to a possible 2016 bid. Earlier this week, Walker announced the formation a nonprofit group, Our American Revival, designed to raise unlimited amounts of money to boost his political ambitions.
The experienced Republican operative he hired to run that group, Rick Wiley, listened from the front row to a speech that savaged Washington and those who work here.
"Washington is kind of a dome. I like to call it 68 square miles surrounded by reality," Walker said, borrowing a favorite description of his state's capital, Madison.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus has said, "Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality."
While he has yet to formally announce his intentions, Walker becomes the latest in a group of high-profile Republicans taking significant steps toward launching a presidential campaign. He is less known than some of his potential competitors — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance — but Republican officials say Walker is getting a second look, especially after Friday's announcement that 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney would forgo a third campaign for the White House.
Asked about Romney's decision, Walker declined to comment as he rushed to his next meeting.
"There's a lot of admiration for Walker, but the skepticism was whether he had the charisma to excite people," said Fred Malek, the Republican Governors Association's chief fundraiser, who was hosting Walker at his home Friday night after spending most of the day with him. "He certainly demonstrated in Iowa that he did."
Aides say Walker began Friday at a breakfast meeting with South Carolina state Rep. Phyllis Henderson, who recently organized a private South Carolina meet-and-greet for Christie.
Walker was also expected to sit down with two potential policy staffers — one focused on domestic issues and the other on foreign matters — who may join his campaign in waiting. Aides report that Walker has already hired a national finance director and plans to announce the hiring of a national communications director next week, but the aides declined to name them.
On Saturday he'll attend the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner as Malek's guest.
Walker is also finishing plans to visit early voting states beyond Iowa, including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Despite the aggressive steps, Walker isn't expected to join the Republican presidential race formally until after his state budget is finalized around June. Walker this week said voters want the next president to be someone who hasn't served in Washington, a fresh face with a proven record.
His speech Friday made clear he sees any ties to Washington as a negative attribute. He didn't mention any of his likely rivals by name, but it was clear members of Congress were held in low regard.
"In Washington, it's this top-down, government-knows-best approach," Walker said. By contrast, Walker said his administration "took the power away from the big-government special interests."
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.