Scott Walker's path to the presidency runs straight through Iowa — whether he likes it or not.
Ever since an electrifying January speech in the Hawkeye State, the Wisconsin governor has remained the tenuous front-runner in Iowa. He has topped nearly every poll, he has had strong presences at early cattle calls, and his post-announcement tour will be capped by him crisscrossing the state for 11 stops in three days in a Winnebago.
Now that he's about to make his bid official, expectations will become even higher for him to win the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Observers in the state say anything less than a victory in February could derail his White House hopes.
"It certainly is a must-win," said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. "Certainly, he is the guy to watch in Iowa."
"Everything is going to plan in terms of Scott Walker's world," said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director.
Even with his relatively late official announcement — Walker has had an active political action committee for months but delayed a formal kickoff until after Wisconsin's legislative session ended — Walker has long held on to the top spot in Iowa. A Politico survey of Iowa GOP insiders on Friday found that 82 percent believed he would win the caucuses if they were held now.
Some Republicans believe Walker could have the secret sauce that enables him to go the distance beyond Iowa and bridge the divide in ways that other winners haven't been able to do. An evangelical, he can speak to religious conservatives and social conservatives, even though some may be skeptical of his evolution on immigration reform and his wife and sons' seeming support for same-sex marriage. His persistence against labor, though, and wins in Wisconsin have earned him the reverence of many establishment Republicans.
Even those who aren't on Team Walker are praising the way he's been able to consolidate support in the state. While his numbers have tightened, in such a crowded field, the share he is getting could be enough for a victory.
"They're doing everything right to win Iowa," said a high-level Iowa GOP operative who is likely to go work for a rival candidate. "It may take an act of God for him not to win Iowa. But if he doesn't win, you can't see a path for him anywhere else. Iowa is all about expectations, and, at this point, he's not trying to downplay them."
One of the most striking things is that Walker has emerged as the dominant force in Iowa despite having made few visits to the state over the past year. He's behind even billionaire mogul Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in visits, according to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker, as of Friday. That position will change after he hits the ground next weekend, but Walker also has built-in advantages the other candidates don't have.
As governor of a neighboring state, he's already familiar to many Iowans. They know about his battles with public-sector unions and labor and how he won three elections in four years in the swing state.
Talking about those battles in human terms is what sparked the Walker spike in the first place. At conservative Iowa Rep. Steve King's Iowa Freedom Summit in January, he fired up the crowd not only with his exhortation of tax cuts and his allegiances to social conservative principles but also for the deeply personal story of how his own family had suffered because of his refusal to back down from his principles.
"Someone sent me a threat that said they were going to gut my wife like a deer," Walker said. "All they did was remind me how important it was to stand up for the people of my state."
Walker has a personal connection to Iowa, too. He often speaks about how his father was a Baptist minister in tiny Plainfield, Iowa, until his family moved to Wisconsin when he was 10.
And, so far, he hasn't flamed out like 2012 candidates former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who also touted her Iowa roots, or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who couldn't capitalize on his own status as a neighboring state executive.
For Walker, the momentum he captured six months ago hasn't waned. He's made enough visits back to the state for big events to stay relevant, even though he may not have a big staff presence yet.
In May's Iowa Lincoln Day Dinner, his hospitality suite afterward was stocked with cheese and ice cream for packed-in voters with an elaborate setup. The next month, he was one of just two candidates to jump on a motorcycle for Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's "Roast and Ride," and the Harley-Davidson aficionado (the company is headquartered in Wisconsin) seemed right at home on the back of a hog.
"I think for Iowans — there's a lot of interest there for him," said Robinson, who now runs TheIowaRepublican.com. "As one of the last people to formally get in the race, that could have been problematic for him if someone else had ramped up their Iowa activity, but no one else has. No one's made life difficult for Scott Walker."
But there's still plenty of time for that to change, and Schmidt, a longtime observer of the caucuses, emphasized that Iowa voters will want to know that Walker has political legs beyond their state.
"He still has to show that he can do well in New Hampshire and South Carolina," Schmidt said, "and the problem there is he's just not up there the way he is in Iowa."