By Steve Holland
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (Reuters) - Scott Walker's early surge in the jockeying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination reflects the belief by conservatives that he is truly one of their own and has a track record to show for it.
But the Wisconsin governor's rapid rise to the top of national polls of Republicans is coming at a cost. His recent verbal stumbles have made him look ill-prepared for the national spotlight and exposed his inexperience on the campaign trail.
Walker's star appeal was on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a four-day gathering of conservative activists outside Washington that concluded on Saturday.
In a surprising show of strength, he came in second in the CPAC straw poll with 21.4 percent of the votes from the 3,007 people who cast ballots. He was behind only Kentucky Senator Rand Paul at 25.7 percent.
When Walker attended a CPAC coffee reception on Friday a day after addressing the conclave, the crowd spilled out of the conference room and into the hallway, with people straining to hear what he had to say.
Walker may be benefiting as the potential alternative for conservatives to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose moderate record has made him the party establishment candidate but who has alarmed many grassroots activists on the right.
But his sudden fame is also a result of having governed from the right and lived to tell about it. The CPAC poll found 39 percent of respondents felt the most important quality for a Republican presidential candidate to possess is a solid conservative record, a requirement that Walker appears to meet.
“I think he’s a man of principle and he has staked out tough positions and stood by them," CPAC attendee Mike Potaski, 66, of Uxbridge, Mass., said of Walker.
Walker, 47, burst on the scene in January at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a gathering of conservatives in Des Moines, where activists reveled in his record of having defeated a 2012 recall effort over his challenge to the collective bargaining process for most public unions in Wisconsin. He is soon to sign right-to-work legislation that would ban private sector workers from being required to join a union or pay dues.
With the sudden fame has come increased scrutiny. He stumbled over a question about evolution on a visit to London. And when asked by The Washington Post last week whether he believed President Barack Obama was a Christian, he hedged in his response, even though Obama has frequently spoken of his Christian faith.
Then when he addressed CPAC on Thursday, Walker said his battle with labor had given him the mettle needed to take on militant groups like Islamic State.
"If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same in the rest of the world," he said.
The remark drew criticism from Democrats who felt he was comparing pro-union protesters to Islamic State militants.
The missteps barely caused a ripple at CPAC, where conservatives were looking for a savior who can rally the Republican Party against the expected Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 White House race.
"Is he going to be 'Reaganesque' in his speeches and perfect in every one? No. But it’s okay," said Dave Bossie, president of Citizens United, an influential conservative group. "That's what makes him a little different from some of these guys who are a little more polished. People connect to him."
But veteran campaign watchers see the potential for trouble ahead for Walker.
"If Walker responds to such questions in a way that satisfies or reassures fair-minded voters, he passes the test and continues to move up. If he doesn't, doubts will increase, and, if it happens often enough, he'll fall back into the field," political analyst Charlie Cook wrote in National Journal.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Frances Kerry)