By Steve Holland
CHARLESTON, South Carolina, March 20 (Reuters) – Republican Scott Walker is cultivating an image on the nascent U.S. 2016 campaign trail as a regular guy who met his wife at a barbecue restaurant and buys discount clothes, a man-of-the-people approach that is in contrast to the more buttoned-down Jeb Bush.
Walker is road-testing the theme in his initial appearances as he considers whether to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, offering an implicit contrast between himself and the wealthier and better-known Bush.
“We didn’t inherit a lot from our family. We certainly didn’t inherit fame and fortune,” Walker told South Carolina Republicans at a luncheon in Columbia on Thursday.
The view in the Walker camp is that the 47-year-old Wisconsin governor’s positioning of himself as fresh-faced and approachable will help improve his name recognition in crucial states like South Carolina and appeal to grassroots activists beyond the donor class that Bush has spent much time cultivating.
It is part of a tactic of presenting himself as the ideological alternative to Bush, who is polling well as he considers a White House run but whose moderate stances on immigration and education have troubled some conservatives.
Aligning himself more closely with conservatives, Walker has shifted to the right on immigration reform, no longer supporting a legal pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Bush, a former two-term governor of Florida where nearly a quarter of the population is Hispanic, has adamantly refused pressure to take a more conservative stance on immigration, supporting such a legal pathway on the grounds that immigrants represent future economic growth.
In another shift, Walker said this month he would sign a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, after saying during his re-election campaign last year that a decision on an abortion should be between a woman and her doctor.
Walker’s changes of stance may help him among conservative activists who will vote in heavy numbers in the Republican primary contests. But if he won the party nomination, it could hurt him in the general election, given most Americans support an immigration overhaul and a woman’s right to an abortion.
His shifts will likely lead some to question his authenticity.
“It seems he’s had some shifting going on that he’s going to need to explain one way or the other,” said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist.
By all reckoning, Walker, who stared down public unions in Wisconsin and survived a recall election, should find many enthusiastic supporters in South Carolina, whose first-in-the-South primary early next year will help set the tone for the nomination battle.
In his Columbia appearance, he talked up his union fight, fired verbal blasts at President Barack Obama and potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and had many in the crowd on their feet when he said Islamic State extremists must be stopped.
His speeches in Columbia and Rock Hill were heavy on talk of buying discounted clothes at Kohl’s department store, flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s as a youth and loving barbecue, a South Carolina staple.
His father was a small-town preacher and his mother’s family did not have indoor plumbing until she went to junior high school, he said.
In Greenville, Walker stopped to buy a Harley-Davidson T-shirt to play up his motorcycle riding.
William Wiseman, 75, a retired Air Force sergeant who heard Walker in Rock Hill, called him “a real person. He came up from the grassroots to be what he is.”
But Walker may have trouble loosening the Bush family grip on South Carolina. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush won the state in their election battles and many people here have great admiration for Jeb Bush, who talked up his family ties on his own swing through the state this week.
Bush, 62, holds an advantage over Walker and others in the polls. The latest Reuters-Ipsos national tracking poll of support for potential Republican candidates gives him 19.2 percent, compared with 15.2 percent for Walker. (Additional reporting by Greg Lacour in Rock Hill; Editing by Caren Bohan and Frances Kerry)