Scott Walker Confronts the Rigors of the Presidential Campaign Trail

The Wisconsin governor hit some turbulence in his first week as a presidential candidate.
Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The brutal reality of a presidential campaign hit Scott Walker somewhere in the sky over the southern U.S. late Tuesday.

The Wisconsin governor's commercial flight had been circling amid thunderstorms on its way to Atlanta, where he and his entourage were to catch a connecting flight to Charleston.

The pilot informed the flight's passengers that they were running low on fuel and needed to divert to Memphis. After hours on the ground there, Walker resusmed his flight to Atlanta, and arrived at about 1:30 a.m., where he missed his connection by minutes.

Walker's aides decided the only way they could get him to his 8 a.m. event Wednesday at a Harley-Davidson dealership in North Charleston would be to drive. About five hours later, the newly minted Republican presidential candidate arrived with a smile on his face, taking it all in stride and telling his audience of about 250 people that he hadn't slept in more than 24 hours.

But it quickly became clear on Wednesday that Walker's challenges during his presidential announcement rollout week wouldn't involve just weather and delayed flights.

For the second day in a row, reporters pressed him on his statements in opposition to a resolution unanimously approved by the executive committee of the Boy Scouts of America this week that would end a ban on gay adult leaders. Initially, Walker had stated that the earlier policy "protected children," but after facing criticism from gay rights groups, he sought to clarify his remarks. 

“The policy was perfectly fine when I was there and I thought they should be protected from all the political and media controversy," Walker said Wednesday. 

The topic served as a distraction at a time Walker wanted, as much as possible, to stick to a message of resolute leadership and conservative accomplishment that he'd outlined in his announcement speech Monday in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

On Thursday, he's likely to face questions about an expected Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling. That ruling will answer the question of whether a criminal investigation can move forward into whether Walker's 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups exempt from donor disclosure laws.

Despite the distractions, Walker drew good-sized crowds at his stops Wednesday. A sprawling parking outside a barbeque restaurant where he spoke in Lexington was at capacity and beyond with cars double-parked and hundreds there to see him.

"I've liked Scott Walker since the media started attacking him a few years ago," said Louie Cameron, 59, an insurance agent who drove more than an hour to attend the North Charleston event. "That's always a sign of a great leader."

At that same event, Phil Schoonover allowed Walker to break one of his fundamental tenants when it comes to talking about and selling Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"We normally don't bring politics or religion into it," said Schoonover, who for 36 years has owned Low Country Harley-Davidson.

As part of a five-state tour this week, Walker is using Harley dealerships as campaign props for four of his stops. They offer free space and help burnish his everyman image.

"We get a free doughnut and some coffee," said Schoonover, a Republican still surveying his party's presidential field.

Ahead of Walker's appearance, Schoonover's workers busily polished the dealership, moving roughly 40 motorcycles off the showroom floor to make room for Walker's stage and audience.

A Walker political operative had stopped in on July 5, a Sunday, to ask about using the space for a possible event, Schoonover said.

Given the fact that the company he represents is based in Walker's Wisconsin, Schoonover said he didn't feel like he could say no. "My franchise is with Harley-Davidson, which has its home office in Milwaukee," Schoonover explained.

Besides, Schoonover said he figured it would mean some free publicity for his business and brand. "We sell everything from baby bibs to dog toys. We sell a lifestyle," he said.

Other than his history of confronting unions and the fact that he rides a Harley, Schoonover said he doesn't know much about Walker and isn't necessarily going to support him in February's South Carolina primary.

"I think he's a balanced budget guy and that appeals to me," said Schoonover, adding that he's also intrigued by the candidacy of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Walker, who owns a 2003 Road King, has for years used his Harley to connect with rural voters, veterans and other riders.

"They tell me, if I'm successful, I don't get to ride a Harley anymore," he said Tuesday at a Harley dealership in Las Vegas.

It was an apparent reference to limits the Secret Service might place on a future President Walker. That said, the rookie national candidate has many storms, canceled flights and controversies ahead of him before that could happen.

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