DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A little more than a year ago, Wisconsin's Scott Walker became the first U.S. governor ever to survive a recall election. The Republican lawmaker's acrimonious battle with unions gave him folk hero status with many conservatives, and some political observers now consider him a presidential contender. As Shawn Johnson from Wisconsin Public Radio reports, while Walker is downplaying that kind of talk, he is also taking steps that seem to hint at national ambitions.
SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Wisconsin State Legislature hasn't yet passed Governor Scott Walker's latest budget, and already Walker is touring the state on a victory lap. At a stop in Milwaukee, he's explaining Wisconsin's publicly funded private school voucher program and his negotiations with lawmakers who were at first skeptical of vouchers.
Walker quotes from President Reagan to make his point.
GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: He said: What do you call someone who's with you 80 percent of the time? You call him your ally.
JOHNSON: To say Scott Walker only got 80 percent of what he wanted might be selling him short. Walker wanted vouchers in nine new school districts. The deal he cut would allow for a slow expansion of vouchers statewide. It's one of many issues where Walker has mostly gotten his way with the help of a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Democratic Senator Bob Jauch, who's served in the Legislature for three decades under governors from both parties, he says the Wisconsin government of today is far different from any he's ever known.
STATE SENATOR BOB JAUCH: The majority party sees their role as conquerors instead of compromisers.
JOHNSON: Scott Walker also wants the authority to sell state-owned power plants, highways, prisons and even college dorms. Just two years ago, GOP lawmakers balked at the idea. This year, they're mostly embracing it. Just this week, Walker said he would sign a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound. And in a state that has traditionally expanded Medicaid coverage, the governor has gone to great lengths to reject Obamacare.
He wants to turn down federal money to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, a move that will cost Wisconsin hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years. Democrats like State Representative Mandela Barnes are quick to point to Walker's political ambitions.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE MANDELA BARNES: The state of Wisconsin wants to see the president doomed and hopes that they'll see another one groomed.
JOHNSON: Democrats here constantly play up the idea that Scott Walker is focused more intently on running for president in 2016 than on governing the state. He dismisses that.
WALKER: I don't talk about it. I haven't talked privately. I haven't talked publicly to people about it. Everybody else in the media and a lot of pundits talk about it, but they can be the ones doing the talking. I'm going to stay focused on being governor.
JOHNSON: But the signs are there. The governor is writing a book. He was the keynote speaker recently at an Iowa fundraiser, and he's kept up an aggressive out-of-state speaking and fundraising schedule. Walker also sits squarely atop the list of Republican presidential contenders put together by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
LARRY SABATO: Conservatives love the fact that he beat the unions and he beat the media. That's the way they looked at that recall election. He also managed to win what has become a blue state in most elections, certainly presidential elections.
JOHNSON: Democrats contend that Walker's economic record should sink, not propel, his political career. Wisconsin trails all its Midwestern neighbors and most of the nation in job growth. Polls show that Walker still polarizes voters here. A year after the recall attempt, his approval rating still hovers around 50 percent. While Democrats could defeat Walker when he runs for reelection in 2014, none has yet jumped into the race for governor. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson, in Madison.