WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Gov. Scott Walker continued to steal the spotlight and make headlines on his second trip to Washington in less than a week.
Speaking Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which has become an early, can't-miss appearance for potential Republican presidential candidates, Walker won big applause during his 15-minute speech. But like at the National Governors Association meeting last weekend, he uttered something during the question-and-answer session that could haunt him: he suggested dealing with thousands of protesters in the Wisconsin Capitol prepared him to take on ISIS.
"If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," he said in response to an audience member who asked him how he would confront the self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorist group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
The comment quickly drew condemnation from Wisconsin groups, who accused Walker of comparing teachers and nurses to terrorists. But a Walker spokeswoman insists he was not comparing American citizens to ISIS.
"Governor Walker believes our fight against ISIS is one of the most important issues our country faces," said spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. "He was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS. What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership. Those are the qualities we need to fix the leadership void this White House has created."
The comment also drew a mixed reaction from those at the conference.
"To compare 100,000 unarmed students to well-armed terrorists is pretty stupid," said Chandler Lassen, a 20-year-old University of South Carolina student who attended in his capacity as treasurer of South Carolina's College Republicans.
Professionals were less harsh in their assessment and chalked up the incident to a gaffe.
Tom Basile, who led a workshop titled "Effective communication to expand a conservative majority" earlier in the afternoon, said Q&A sessions at this early stage of the campaign, during which almost all contenders are in "exploratory" mode, can be fraught with peril and must be navigated carefully. And especially in regards to foreign policy, most would-be nominees don't yet have "fully formed" views that they can articulate clearly, said the Forbes and XM-Radio contributor.
Walker was trying to say that the United States needs to confront the Muslim extremist threat more directly than President Barack Obama has done so far, Basile said. "His point is that he's going to be tougher than Obama," Basile said.
Byron Thomas, a 23-year-old senior at the University of South Carolina, didn't take Walker's comments literally and instead focused on his larger point about how dangerous ISIS is at home and abroad.
"We have to do everything we can to get rid" of ISIS and similar groups, Thomas said. "We can't drop a nuclear bomb, because that would be immoral," yet the threat is great and must be confronted.
Walker made headlines last weekend when he said "I don't know" in response to a reporter asking whether he thought Obama was a Christian. That answer earned him condemnation from some pundits but plaudits from many within the Republican base, who will decide who the 2016 GOP presidential nominee is. Similarly, his ISIS comment quickly hit the blogs and social media but it remains to be seen if it will have any lasting negative affect on his nascent campaign. Critics have dinged Walker for not having a clear foreign policy agenda but he made clear Thursday that for now, it is anything diametrically opposed to Obama's actions.
He mocked Obama for declaring Yemen a success in the Mideast and Iran as "a country we can do business with." He also took a swipe at Hillary Clinton, without naming her, by deriding Obama's former secretary of state for pushing a "reset button" with Russia.
His comments on domestic issues met with equal applause from the crowd packing the ballroom at the National Harbor hotel, which is just outside Washington's city limits in Maryland.
They ate up Walker's boasts about taking on "big labor" by stripping public unions of their collective bargaining powers and Republicans' latest victory in making Wisconsin a "right to work" state. However, one attendant—who was escorted out—shouted, "You suck," when Walker recounted his coups against labor. Walker took it in stride, ad libbing how "millions" of people feel differently and how his actions were a victory for "Wisconsin's "hard-working taxpayers."
"I really liked what he had to say except about the minimum wage," Lassen said. "I feel we should embrace it federally," he said, adding that too many workers making less than minimum wage cannot survive on such low wages.
Thomas said that although he comes from a union household, he strongly supports Walker's stance on organized labor.
"I think people should work for what they get," he said. The government and unions "just hand stuff out," he said, adding that he doesn't oppose all social welfare programs, such as food stamps, however.