Which isn’t to say that Walker-the-ideologue is an act. Far from it. “He’s a true core conservative. He’s not shy about it,” says Joe Sanfelippo, who worked with Walker on the Milwaukee County board of supervisors. “He knows what he believes in and all his policies are aimed with those things in mind.” But Walker has also showed restraint when it benefits him: he exempted cops and firefighters, groups that enjoy strong public support and tend to lean Republican, from his collective-bargaining bill. The decision may have been his career’s saving grace. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who included such groups in his own union crackdown, saw that law fall last year in a public referendum. As Milwaukee County executive, Walker also had a habit, say opponents, of submitting budgets that would never pass, but which would preserve his anti-tax bona fides.

Another of Walker’s tricks is to soften his hard-charging politics with anodyne rhetoric, full of business jargon and cliches. “He’s a talk-radio Republican, but he avoids coming across as angry and hot,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Lee. (Indeed, the half-dozen former Democratic colleagues I spoke to all praised Walker as unfailingly polite.) On the stump, he doesn’t look like a champion or a villain — he has all the color and charisma of an accountant. He is zealously on message, repeating talking points almost to the paragraph. At one press conference I attended last month outside Milwaukee, Walker was asked about the claim that his corporate tax credits had boosted the wealthy at the expense of middle-class workers. “Those are tax breaks for business,” he responded. “Those are tax reductions for jobs.” In a contentious campaign, speaking in bland tautologies can be a useful skill.