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5 things we learned about Scott Walker in 2015

Scott Walker is set to announce his campaign on Monday. Here's what we've learned about his 2016 plan from his actions the last few months.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is set to formally announce his presidential campaign on Monday in Waukesha, making him the 15th Republican candidate to enter the race. Just like many of the White House contenders who have announced lately, it has been clear that Walker has been running for the better part of the year. Here's what we've learned about him from the decisions he's made so far. 

Related: Scott Walker: ‘I’m in. I’m running’

He’s in the top tier

Given the spectacular size of the GOP field, there was no guarantee Walker would be a co-front-runner by now. Many observers heading into 2015 were skeptical of his ability to command a crowd -- he’s not known for his charisma, and it was only last cycle that Tim Pawlenty’s plain Midwestern style proved a dud with GOP voters despite his solid credentials.  

Walker put those concerns to bed with a breakout speech at the conservative Freedom Summit in Iowa, the first major candidate showcase in the crucial caucus state. He wowed the crowd with a dramatic retelling of his battle to curb bargaining rights for public sector unions, which set off mass protests and led to a failed recall attempt. He played up his blue-collar roots, getting laughs with an anecdote about shopping for bargain-bin sweaters at Kohl’s.

The speech was a signal he was a force to be reckoned with, and his poll numbers shot up immediately afterward. Walker’s core strength is that he has a decent pitch to multiple wings of the party – social conservatives, economic conservatives, tea partiers and hawks – and a plausible executive resume for voters worried the three first-term senators in the race might be too green. 

“He plays well to a variety of different Republican constituencies and I haven’t seen anything that would have turned any one group off of him yet,” Craig Schoenfeld, who ran Newt Gingrich’s Iowa effort in 2012, told msnbc.

It can be a tough balancing act pleasing all these groups, but Walker has a legitimate path to the nomination if he can exploit concerns on the right over rivals like Jeb Bush, who has ruffled feathers with his immigration and education positions, and Marco Rubio, who has his own immigration issues and lacks Walker’s gubernatorial experience. 

He’s all in on Iowa

Walker’s nomination strategy starts and ends with Iowa, where he hopes his family roots (he was partly raised in Iowa) and social conservatism will match up with the state’s evangelical-leaning Republican base. His post-announcement tour tells the tale: He’ll be spending one day in Nevada, one day in South Carolina, one in New Hampshire, but three whole days touring Iowa.

So far Iowa has been the most important frame for evaluating Walker’s decisions over the last few months. Whenever there’s been a fork in the road on policy over the last six months, he’s swerved in the direction of Des Moines.

On immigration, for example, Walker announced he had changed his mind on a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants and no longer supported the idea. Since then he’s expressed skepticism toward legal immigration as well, a surprise move in a field where even some of the most conservative candidates want to reduce barriers to entry. It’s dangerous territory for a general election, but could help him in a state where anti-immigration firebrand Rep. Steve King is one of the most prominent local Republicans. 

Last month, he broke with Bush and Rubio by calling for a constitutional amendment allowing states to ban gay marriage in response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling legalizing the practice nationally. Once again, it’s a worry general election move that Walker’s wife has said their own family is split over, but it gives him an opportunity to push his advantage with religious conservatives in Iowa.

Walker’s tacked right on abortion recently, pushing for a 20-week ban in Wisconsin with no exceptions for rape or incest after previously downplaying such legislation during his re-election campaign. He’s tacked left on energy by embracing ethanol mandates he had previously criticized in his own state, a position popular among Iowa Republicans but loathed by small-government conservatives outside of it. He also dropped an aide, Liz Mair, after Iowa Republicans complained about her past tweets criticizing the state’s outsize role in the nominating process. 

“The theory is that he can get a big bump from Iowa and then get momentum from there,” GOP strategist John Feehery told msnbc in an interview. “I don’t think he'll play as well in New Hampshire where they’re more liberal on social issues.”

Wisconsin is a double-edged sword

The strongest case for Walker among Republicans is his tenure in Wisconsin, a blue-leaning state where he’s nonetheless survived three elections while passing a raft of conservative legislation. In a party whose base is constantly worried that its leaders are about to sell them out, Walker can argue with credibility that he’s risked his re-election prospects to score tangible gains on gun rights, labor laws and abortion restrictions.

But there are downsides as well. He fell well short of a campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. Even some Republicans in the state are unhappy with his recent budget, citing policy changes unrelated to fiscal issues, steep cuts to education, and an over-reliance on borrowing. Candidates looking for opportunities to undermine his success story will have no trouble finding them.

He’s also facing a backlash over his office’s involvement in an attempt to quietly weaken the state’s open records law to block press requests that have yielded some embarrassing finds in the past. Considering how big an issue Republicans are making out of Hillary Clinton’s record on transparency, the records story is a non-ideological issue that could have some power in the right opponent’s hands.  

He has some weak spots

Walker’s done a good job separating himself from Bush and Rubio on policy by tacking right and selling himself to Republicans as more electable and accomplished than many of his other dozen plus rivals. But rival campaigns see a number of areas where Walker is vulnerable. 

It’s usually not a great strategy to accuse a fellow Republican of being too far to the right in a primary, but the way Walker has placated conservatives – especially in Iowa – opens him up to a less ideological accusation: That he twists with the political winds. 

Walker hasn’t helped himself in the way he’s managed some of these changes. Take immigration: In his first interview outlining his new hardline position, he hinted he might still back a path to legal status under the right circumstances and only fully rejected the idea after donors at one of his fundraisers came away with the impression he backed such a path as well. 

In the case of the 20-week abortion ban, Walker championed the no-exceptions bill this year after personally writing a campaign ad in 2014 in which he told voters his previous legislation left “the final decision to a woman and her doctor,” according to the New York Times. On labor issues, he dismissed Democratic accusations that he’d sign a “right to work” law as a “distraction” -- and then signed a “right to work” law after he won. 

A number of conservative commentators also ripped Walker in surprisingly harsh terms for the Mair episode, arguing that his willingness to cave to Iowa Republicans undermined his brand as an “unintimidated” politician who isn’t afraid of a fight. The reaction suggests that some on the right are watching him closely on this front.  

Then there’s foreign policy, an area where Walker has less experience than his rivals in the Senate. Presidential rival Rick Perry went after the governor earlier this year for saying his battles with labor leaders prepared him to take on the Islamic State. Walker also garnered some negative headlines during a visit to London when he declined to answer a reporter’s question on evolution, among other topics. When he took a trip to Israel later in the year, he didn’t talk to the press at all. 

He has an important take on the general election

Perhaps the most important dividing line between Walker and his top-tier rivals is what his strategy says about his general election approach. Depending on who wins the nomination, the GOP’s comeback plan will be very different in the final stretch. 

Bush's and Rubio’s campaign advisers look at Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss and see a candidate who scared off Latino voters and young people who might otherwise support a Republican. Bush has spoken openly about his plan to “lose the primary to win the general” and has made immigration reform a central component to his campaign, while Rubio tried to pass bipartisan legislation on the issue before retreating to a somewhat more conservative position. Both of them responded to the gay marriage ruling, which is wildly popular with younger voters, with only tepid criticism before moving on to more politically friendly topics.

Walker by contrast has been moving consistently right on immigration and gay rights alike over the last few months and pledged to keep the marriage issue alive by agitating for a new amendment. Underlying moves like these is an alternate view of the election – one that sees less value in cutting the margins with Democratic-leaning groups and more value in firing up conservative-leaning constituencies, especially blue collar whites.

These two approaches each are associated with different regions. The Rubio and Bush side is focused on flipping states like their native Florida while the Walker side is more honed in on turning states like Wisconsin. They also attract different Republicans -- tea party activists tend to like the base-focused approach, big money donors tend to like the outreach approach and could become uneasy with Walker as a result. 

"The path for a Republican to win the presidency comes through the Midwest," Walker said in Iowa earlier this year. "It comes from Iowa and Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and we're even going to include Pennsylvania because they're part of the Big Ten." 

The argument between these two sides might be the single most important conflict in the Republican primaries. Walker’s campaign is worth watching closely for that reason alone.