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Walker takes a more conservative stand on some issues than do fellow Republican governors such as Christie and Kasich. Unlike them, Walker refused to expand Medicaid in his state with new federal funds under President Barack Obama's new health care law. Democrats accused him of putting political ambition above the best interests of low-income Wisconsin residents.
"Accepting Medicaid expansion through Obamacare would be an anathema to Walker's tea party base and his corporate backers," said the liberal Daily Kos website.
Walker joined many other governors in criticizing congressional Republicans who prompted a 16-day government shutdown last month in a failed bid to block the Affordable Care Act. Chief among them was Cruz, who establishment Republicans fear will appeal to hard-line conservatives in Republican primaries but not to general election voters in November 2016.
Campaign strategists say Walker is trying to carve a middle path between Christie's moderation and Cruz's staunchly right positions.
Walker "is best positioned to unite the conservative and establishment wings," said Texas-based consultant Matt Mackowiak. "Winning victories over public unions and beating back a recall attempt," he said, can help Walker build a national image for conservative voters.
At least one liberal group is taking note of Walker. Progressives United is criticizing his record and seeking donations "to stop his political career dead in its tracks."
Even Walker's biggest fans note that the 2016 election is far off, and any number of unforeseen events can boost or doom potential candidacies.
Christie planted himself in the middle of Republican speculation by winning two terms in a state that hasn't backed a Republican presidential nominee since 1988. Walker, several other governors and a few members of Congress will see if they can join him.