By Brian Nemoir for   Published Apr 27, 2004 at 5:01 AM

{image1}Admittedly, I get confused as to whether you're supposed to wait three hours after eating to swim. Or is it one hour after eating to go to bed? But I do know this: in recent history, winning or coming very close in Milwaukee County is essential if a Republican intends to win a statewide office.

The last Republican to unseat a Democratic governor did it in 1986 (Thompson v. Earl), and in doing so stopped the vote margin hemorrhaging in Milwaukee County and turned the tide by winning Milwaukee County in the next three re-elections.

I've never met a Republican who hasn't been quick to lather in nostalgia, although now there is true cause for excitement as an early front-runner emerged on April 6 from the talented field of oft-mentioned gubernatorial candidates: Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

Walker upended Milwaukee's political environment in 2002 by winning the unexpected county executive race using the combustible anger created by the gluttonous pension deal as the rallying call for a fresh start in Milwaukee. Rising above the backroom snickering that he would be a "one and done" candidate riding short-term political capital into office, Walker earned an overwhelming 57 percent nod from the electorate this time around.

Those chalking up Walker win to a "post-pension scandal effect" just don't get it, as his support is based on a trust earned my delivering on early promises: clean up government and lower taxes. Simple, deliverable and understandable promises, evolving into a covenant of sorts. Not every decision he has made has been embraced, but the electorate clearly believes in his leadership for the city.

Not long ago, being able to identify Milwaukee's County executive by name was considered a challenge; soon keeping the current office holder in Milwaukee will be the real challenge.

Gov. Jim Doyle was rightly concerned, and sent his minion David Riemer down to Milwaukee to help soften what Democrats spitefully refer to as the GOP's prodigal child.

Fully funded, and full of venom, Reimer failed, delivering an embarrassing 43 percent (note: nice work delivering only the long-proven Democratic base of Milwaukee), and further extended Doyle's losing streak (Alex Paul -- State Senate, Al Foeckler -- State Assembly, and Paul Soglin -- Madison Mayor).

Walker has put together an enviable coalition in Milwaukee, melding not only the Republican base, but garnering strong support amongst Milwaukee's two key demographics; blue-collar Democrats -- traditional fiscal-social conservatives -- and minorities (earning 42 percent of the African-American vote compared to the Tom Barrett's 7 percent in the mayor's race).

Walker's recent victory will be part of the crescendo that if played right will lead to the GOP nomination in '06. How does Walker earn the GOP nod? Here are a couple of keys:

Refine the county executive role: While Walker has become a household name in metro Milwaukee by effectively defining the role by delivering on early promises, staying relevant will be key. Watch for the inventive politician and his able team to further refine the job as he moves forward, while maintaining and merchandising earlier kept promises. It probably won't get any easier as changes to the county board may bring greater conflict. That may not be all bad.

-Build bigger radio towers: If you live anywhere else in the state, you probably won't understand the true power of Milwaukee's talk radio. Conservative talk show hosts Charlie Sykes (and to a lesser degree Jeff Wagner, both on WTMJ-AM 620) and Mark Belling (WISN-AM 1130), will spend the next two and half years pummeling Doyle and pumping up Walker. All three shows continue to grow their audiences, delivering the creed to key early morning, noon and drive-time audiences. The media-savvy Walker is always a speed dial away. Why is this important? Democrats are quick to dismiss conservative talk radio, but you need to look only as far as Barrett's mayoral victory and his effective use of talk radio as a turning point -- and a testimonial -- to the power of talk radio. The hidden benefit of talk radio isn't the coalescence of metro Milwaukee conservatives, but rather its healthy penetration into key bellwether counties like Kenosha, Racine and Sheboygan. If WISN or WTMJ want to build bigger towers to increase their reach, Walker should help garner permits, in addition to offering his own backyard for the build-out. Talk radio's growing power and mainstream evolution is a cultural phenomenon demonstrative of a paradigm shift in Milwaukee (and probably deserving of an entire column).

Keep it local: Generally, local issues are easier to understand, and are more memorable; handled correctly they could give Walker a huge message advantage over able-bodied federal office-holders looking to 2006. Walker has effectively used "the buck stops here" politics, where as collecting your elected office paycheck from the federal coffers makes a local angle harder to come by.

Prop up the Prez: The Bush team is looking for big things from Wisconsin, and Walker is expected to play a major role in delivering. All gubernatorial-ly mentioned candidates will play heavy roles in the race with many of their key staffers already punching the '04 campaign time clock. Bush pulled 38 percent in Milwaukee County on the road to narrowly losing the state in 2000. Walker will face a key test as he'll be expected to at the very least maintain that margin. If the miraculous happens and Milwaukee tilts to Bush in '04, Walker will be even more of a White House favorite.

Generally, being county executive is a job with diminishing returns, and Walker would be wise to get out before the job gets him, which further points to his entry into the race. It would be an off-year election for Walker, and it is plausible that he would be able to handcuff or at the very least neutralize the Milwaukee business community being courted by Doyle.

It's wasted space debating Doyle's vulnerability now, but it is obvious that Doyle needs to put a stake in Milwaukee and call it his own. It won't be easy. He isn't exactly recognized as a friend of the taxpayer, and the Milwaukee's Democratic community is fractured as a result of the tense mayoral race. The hidden issue certain to rear its ugly head: he's too cozy with the unions to do anything proactive regarding Milwaukee's troubled schools.

The gubernatorial election has plenty of political miles and potholes ahead, and already there's no lack of great talent eyeing the GOP nomination. This is the kind of problem George Steinbrenner would enjoy. Steinbrenner would tell those in the Legislature to stay put. Then he'd look at the troubled Democratic attorney general and think Congressman Mark Green would be able keep his hands firmly on the wheel in that race. Finally, he'd make County Executive Scott Walker the captain of the GOP team. Walker has proven that Milwaukee can be a winner for Republicans; it's too bad that one would have to look all the way back to 1982 to say the same in the world of baseball.

Republican Brian Nemoir worked within state GOP politics for nearly a decade, and now runs his own Madison-based marketing communications firm, Full Impact Communications. Next week, Democrat Chris Micklos counters.

The views expressed in the weekly WisPolitics column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff.