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Can Scott Walker capitalize on Jeb Bush's stumbles?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to guests

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to guests gathered for the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

The 2016 presidential race took an unexpected turn last week. Jeb Bush took an agonizingly long time to get to the obvious answer on Iraq: "Here's the deal: If we're all supposed to answer hypothetical questions - knowing what we know now, what would you have done - I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq."

Even the answer suggested a lack of understanding about the rules of the game in 2015 - "if we're all supposed to answer hypothetical questions." Of course, you are all supposed to, especially the one candidate who is trying to assert he will be his "own man."

By contrast, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, just back from Israel, wrote via email: "Any president would have likely taken the same action. President George W. Bush did with the information he had, even Hillary Clinton voted for it, but knowing what we know now, we should not have gone into Iraq." He continued, "President Bush deserves enormous credit for ordering the surge, a courageous move that worked. Unfortunately, President Obama and Secretary Clinton hastily withdrew our troops, threw away the gains of the surge, and embarked on a broader policy of pivoting away from the Middle East and leading from behind that has created chaos in the region."

That's about as good an answer as one can give, evidence of increased foreign policy prowess.

So now a question mark looms over Jeb Bush. Is this guy someone with sufficient political skill, verbal dexterity and aggressiveness to take it to opponents, specifically Clinton? Right now the answer is no. But - one cannot repeat it too many times - it is so very early in the race and so few voters are paying attention that most errors are correctable. It will be interesting to see whether the candidate who wanted to run a wholly positive campaign is now forced to show he can throw some punches.

That, too, is what the GOP contenders are "all supposed" to do.

The second concern, less obvious but more potent for Bush, is whether Clinton will survive. Her favorability rating is dropping like a stone; her trustworthiness is cratering. And she has avoided the press for 24 days, not a sign of confidence. It is not out of the question that former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley or some other left-leaning challenger could either pull an upset in Iowa or come very, very close. And if Clinton goes down, will Republicans want a Bush? To a large degree, Jeb Bush's viability depends on Clinton's. His dynasty issue is offset if she is in the race. His "candidate of the past" problem is lessened if Clinton ("the candidate further in the past") is running. Otherwise, a Bush going up against a fresher, more forward-looking Democrat face will be untenable in the eyes of many Republicans.

In the same week Bush was struggling, Walker logged travel time in Israel. Steadily over the past few months, he has been acquiring a reservoir of foreign policy expertise. The Israel trip is one more step in the process, providing needed detail and experiences he can then share with media and voters. ("As I was saying to Prime Minister Netanyahu . . . ") Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., will have more granular detail on many foreign policy issues as he demonstrated in a sterling performance at the Council on Foreign Relations this week, but Walker is demonstrating enough understanding of the issues to pass the commander-in-chief test. More important, he will have the leadership card to play. Few will doubt he has steel in the spine and pugnaciousness. Both are needed to win the presidency and then to govern.

Walker also announced last week the appointment of Andrew Bremberg, an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as policy director for the Our American Revival group. Politico reports, "Bremberg has been with McConnell since March of 2014 and acts as conduit between conservative groups and the Senate Republicans as they fill slots on bipartisan boards and commissions such as the National Labor Relations Board and Securities and Exchange Commission. He also was on Mitt Romney's transition team in 2012, laying the groundwork for the repeal of Obamacare had the GOP nominee he won." In conservative circles, he is widely respected for expertise on health care, having worked as a health-care expert at the MITRE Corp. and served in the George W. Bush administration in a variety of health-care posts. Bremberg is "a very smart hire" for Walker, said Penny Nance, head of the conservative group Concerned Women for America. "He is a thoughtful, principled and extremely capable conservative. He will provide solid direction in policy. He's a huge get." If Walker can combine his political skills and moxie with policy chops and a domestic and foreign policy agenda, he will be a formidable contender. With Bush's troubles this week, Walker once again has the opportunity to present himself as a someone who can both win and govern.

Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

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