CPAC: Scott Walker compares US union protesters to IS

Scott Walker Image copyright EPA

The Conservative Political Action Conference's new post-speech question-and-answer format claimed its first victim on Thursday evening.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had just finished giving a rousing speech touting his ability to enact a conservative agenda in his moderate state, including overcoming massive public union demonstrations against his education reform programme.

Then it was time for the man increasingly being seen as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination to answer a handful of questions from a moderator.

What would he do to defeat Islamic State? His answer would become the top-line story from his appearance before the grass-roots activists at the conference in Washington, DC.

"I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil," he said. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world."

You could practically hear the hundred-plus national political reporters gathered at the back auditorium hall pouncing on their keyboards.

Mr Walker was blasted for drawing an analogy between peaceful US protestors with Islamic militants - leaving the governor's communication team scrambling to do damage control.

"Governor Walker ... was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS," Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Mr Walker's political action committee, said in a statement. "What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership."

Image copyright Reuters

The governor tried to further clarify his statement in an interview with Bloomberg News later Thursday evening. He said domestic actions can have foreign policy ramifications, drawing a parallel to Republican patron saint Ronald Reagan, who a few months after becoming president in 1981 fired striking federal air traffic controllers.

"Even though it had nothing to do with foreign policy, I think it had a tremendous impact because it sent a powerful message around the world that this guy was serious," Mr Walker said. "To our allies, you knew you could take him seriously and you could trust him, to our adversaries you knew not to mess with him."

It was too late for Mr Walker to avoid the political fallout from his statement, however. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, called the comparison "inappropriate".

"You are talking about, in the case of ISIS, people who are beheading individuals and committing heinous crimes, who are the face of evil," he said.

Democrats also were quick to strike.

"If Scott Walker thinks that it's appropriate to compare working people speaking up for their rights to brutal terrorists, then he is even less qualified to be president than I thought," said Democratic National Committee communications director Mo Elleithee.

Although Mr Walker has overcome early doubts about his public speaking ability - giving several high-profile speeches that have smoothly blended the story of his working-class upbringing with conservative accomplishments as governor - this is not the first time the governor has stumbled when having to depart from his script.

During an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz he was forced to quickly backtrack after saying US military "boots on the ground" might be necessary in Syria.

And he was perhaps a bit too candid when he told the BBC's Justin Webb during a forum in London that he was "going to punt on that one" when asked whether he believed in evolution.

None of these perceived gaffes matter much to the crowd here at CPAC, where media criticism is considered a badge of honour. But frontrunner status comes with a harsh spotlight, and every misstep takes up time that could otherwise be spent advancing a candidate's message.

It's a lesson Scott Walker is learning the hard way.