COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As he chases the nation's highest office, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is selling himself as the ultimate common man: a church-going, leaf-raking, football-watching, penny-pinching, Harley-riding preacher's son turned union-busting governor.
Walker wants Republicans in early primary states to know he's a staunch conservative, not that anyone seems to doubt it. And not just on labor, but also on taxes, spending, abortion and guns. The Wisconsin governor has even moved rightward on immigration and Common Core education standards, changing his positions to make sure he's in line with the most conservative factions of the Republican Party.
Blistering about President Barack Obama, Walker presents himself as an optimist at heart.
That emerging pitch, put on display in recent visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, played well for many Republicans seeing Walker for the first time in person, 10 months before they will help winnow the GOP presidential nomination field.
"The governor is an authentic, full-spectrum conservative," said South Carolina Republican Chairman Matt Moore.
And not one, some say, with the political pedigree of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another GOP contender, or for that matter Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential favorite should she run as expected.
"I like everything he said and how he says it," said retired New York police detective Harold Donnelly after hearing Walker in South Carolina. "Jeb? He just may be out of touch with the working class. I know Gov. Walker isn't."
Democrats certainly dispute the notion that Walker, 47, is a man of the working people, given his successful push to weaken Wisconsin unions for public and private-sector workers and the financial backing he's received from anti-union business interests. But a "regular guy" reputation with Republicans can go far in a crowded field of contenders.
Bush, 62, spends considerable time justifying his conservative credentials as part of his outreach to skeptical party factions. And when he does tell his personal story, it's in the context of carving out his own place in the Republican Party's pre-eminent family. "I'm my own man," he has said often, trying to separate himself from the presidencies of his father and brother.
Walker doesn't mention Bush in his speeches; he simply wraps nearly every point with some common-man reference or imagery.
When introducing him, his hosts typically note that Walker grew up in a small town, where he became an Eagle Scout, as well as delegate to the American Legion's Boys State and Boys Nation education programs. He likes to talk about how he proposed to his wife, Tonette, in a barbecue joint.
Recalling his political rise in Wisconsin and his 2012 recall election, Walker talks at length about prayer. "As the son of a Baptist preacher," he said in Columbia, "the thing we felt the most weren't the people who donated to us, weren't just the people who helped with grassroots, it's the people who prayed for us."
A staple of his speech is an anecdote about shopping at Kohl's, a Wisconsin-based department store. Walker says his wife taught him how to get the maximum deals. "By the time we finished, they were paying me to buy that sweater," he joked.
Explaining the intensity of the union fights, Walker sets the scene of "raking leaves" on a Sunday afternoon at his family home "between church and watching the Green Bay Packers," which he calls "two religious experiences." As one driver passed by, Walker says, "He flipped me off."
Patrick Cloud, 28, a hospitality worker who heard Walker in Charleston, South Carolina, said he came across as a "down-home, salt-of-the-earth-kinda-message guy."
For all of that, Moore, the state chairman, says it's too early to know how Walker's strengths will play for voters. "There will be a lot of volatility in the next 10, 11 months," he said.
But one young South Carolina Republican, third-year law student Adam Morgan, said Walker's appeal reminded him of another 47-year-old candidate: the Democrat who is now president.
"For people in my generation, politics is so much about older people telling us how messed up everything is," Morgan said. But Walker "talks about it with optimism, in a real way. That's just what Barack Obama did. He made people believe."
Associated Press writer Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.
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