MADISON, Wis. -- Another year, another campaign.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is gearing up for re-election next year, his third race in four years. But the Republican's courting of out-of-state donors and conservatives, his plans to visit Iowa this week and his refusal to say whether he would serve out another full term if elected suggest he might be seeking a much bigger prize – the presidency.
Not that he will openly acknowledge as much.
"I love being governor," Walker said recently, just two years after bursting onto the national political scene when he challenged public unions and a year after surviving a recall election. "I've had to work hard for it. I'm focused on being governor, and I'm going to continue to be governor as long as the people of the state want me to be governor."
Such remarks are common these days as the 45-year-old seeks to simmer down the buzz about his political future even as his travel schedule suggests he has clear national aspirations, perhaps as early as 2016.
Walker spent part of this week at fundraisers in Connecticut for the state Republican Party and in New York City for the New York State Republican Committee.
On Thursday he planned to travel to Iowa, traditionally home of the nation's first presidential caucus, to address Republican activists at the Polk County GOP fundraiser in West Des Moines.
Walker's advisers insist he is focused on his 2014 re-election campaign. But they acknowledge they have talked privately about a possible future presidential bid. Still, they say they are not building a campaign, taking formal steps to run, or even developing a plan for how Walker would do so.
They play down the Iowa appearance by contending that Walker simply was returning a favor to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who invited Walker to Thursday's event and held a fundraiser for him in Dubuque, Iowa, during the 2012 recall election.
Yet Walker has taken a number of steps to put him in a position to undertake a presidential bid if he were to win a second term.
He's appealed to national conservatives, who make up the core of GOP presidential primary voters, with series of high-profile speeches to the National Rifle Association's annual meeting and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
In June, he will speak the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an event organized by Ralph Reed, and headline a Republican Jewish Coalition fundraiser in California.
A prodigious fundraiser, Walker has focused on keeping active, if not building upon, a national donor network that was critical in helping him beat back the recall attempt.
Aside from the Northeast fundraisers this week, he's also continuing to engage his top donors, who helped him raise nearly $35 million in 2011 and 2012, about two-thirds of which came from outside Wisconsin. They include Diane Hendricks, the owner of ABC Supply Co., in Beloit, Wis.; Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, owners of Illinois-based U-Line Corp.; Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson; and Wyoming billionaire Foster Freiss.
At the same time, Walker is working on a book that's expected to be published this fall about the union fight.
His conservative record as governor and advice to fellow Republicans suggest a possible approach to a candidacy.
In an era in which Washington remains toxic to voters, Walker presents himself as a reform-minded outsider who pushed an effort to strip public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. It's a fight, he says, that's now paying dividends for the state.
He regularly counsels Republicans to stay relevant to the needs of voters, present an optimistic outlook and have the courage to take on major problems, offering himself up as Exhibit A.
Walker came into office in 2011 facing a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall. He balanced it through deep cuts to public and higher education, in addition to forcing public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits. He also signed a measure allowing Wisconsin residents to carry concealed weapons, and a bill giving legal protection to homeowners who shoot and kill intruders on their property.
This year, Walker's signature initiatives focus on cutting income taxes by more than $340 million and expanding the state's private school voucher program beyond the two cities where it's now offered.
The state's budget outlook has a $500 million surplus, and Walker has said he favors using some of that money to deepen his income tax cut and give schools more money.
Still, Walker is far from meeting his main 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 private sector jobs in his term. So far, the state has created only about 62,000 jobs, leaving Wisconsin near the bottom nationally.
The quasi-private economic development agency Walker created to help spearhead job-creation efforts has been plagued with scandals and other problems. An audit found that the agency routinely did not follow state law in handing out grants and tax credits.
Should he run for president, Walker would face a field of challengers that could include Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee who is the governor's friend.
"What he can or could bring to the table is a record on successful reforms and successful leadership of a Midwestern state that has always been considered tough – it's gone back and forth for Republicans and Democrats," said Betsy DeVos, a former RNC committeewoman.
"The challenge for any Republican looking at national office is the challenge to be able to connect with voters in a new and meaningful way."
DeVos and her husband, Dick, have given Walker's campaign more than $250,000.
While Democrats haven't recruited a strong challenger for Walker in his re-election campaign, the party's playbook is clear: castigate Walker for his efforts to curb union influence and tag him as someone eyeing a presidential campaign.
Walker almost always attracts crowds of union backers protesting his signature achievement. Unions staged a protest outside Walker's speech to the Connecticut GOP on Monday night and liberal groups planned to gather outside his Iowa appearance Thursday.
"We would see a likely Walker campaign as one being ferociously anti-union and if the campaign is that, then a Walker administration, god forbid, would be ferociously anti-worker," said Mike Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO.
Thomas reported from Washington.
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