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Washington (AFP) - Wisconsin's union-busting Governor Scott Walker announced that he is joining the crowded field of Republicans jostling to be the party's presidential nominee, arguing he can sell his conservative record to mainstream America.
Walker, who vaulted into national prominence when he picked a fierce fight with labor unions, declared his widely expected 2016 White House run on Twitter early Monday before addressing supporters in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
"After a great deal of thought and a whole lot of prayer," Walker said he is officially "running to serve as your president of the United States of America."
"Americans deserve a leader who will fight and win for them," he said.
Walker, 47, becomes the 15th major Republican to join the race. A 16th, Ohio Governor John Kasich, is expected to enter later this month.
Walker is currently polling in second place behind former Florida governor Jeb Bush across a range of surveys, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is favored to win the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed President Barack Obama.
Another Republican hopeful, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, welcomed Walker into the field.
"His talents will sharpen the field and make us all stronger as we prepare to face Hillary (Clinton) in the general election,” Cruz said in a statement.
Walker instituted a series of conservative reforms in Wisconsin, including major tax cuts, a right-to-work law that makes union dues voluntary instead of mandatory, a tightening of abortion laws and reining in of state regulations.
"Since I've been governor, we took on the unions and won," he said to loud applause.
"We reduced taxes by $2 billion and lowered taxes on individuals, employers and property."
He spoke of defunding women's health organization and abortion provider Planned Parenthood, enacting a concealed-carry firearm law, and requiring photo ID to vote.
"If our reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in America," he said.
He also stressed the need for a tougher foreign policy, particularly against the Islamic State extremist group and President Vladimir Putin's aggressive Russia.
"With Obama and Clinton, Putin has encountered years of mush," he said. "The United States needs a foreign policy that puts steel in front of our enemies."
Walker also spoke out against the nuclear deal that Washington and world powers are negotiating with Tehran, saying "we need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office (and) put in place crippling economic sanctions."
- Four years, three elections -
Walker's national profile was non-existent until 2011, when his plan to reduce the collective bargaining power of state employees brought the wrath of unions, whose members led intense demonstrations in Wisconsin's capital city Madison.
But Walker, belying his friendly demeanor, stood steely and unflappable, winning a showdown against furious Democratic state lawmakers and eventually ramming through his reforms.
Democratic National Committee chair and congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz swiftly attacked Walker's record.
"To promote adherence to his rigid partisan views and to please the special interests that have backed his campaigns, Walker has pit the people of Wisconsin against each other in contentious ideological fights," she said in a statement.
"He's gutted education, refused investments in infrastructure and health care, and shuttered women's health clinics, while pushing tax policies that have overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthiest few."
Richard Trumka, head of AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor umbrella group, had a shorter response: "Scott Walker is a national disgrace."
Walker was born in Colorado, but moved with his family to Wisconsin when he was 10, and said he once flipped burgers at McDonald's.
He attended Marquette University, but left before graduating to take a job at the American Red Cross.
He had apparently planned to return to complete his degree, but got swept up into politics, eventually becoming a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly at age 25.
Fiercely conservative and politically polarizing, Governor Walker introduced his controversial 2011 budget plan that aimed to severely hamper collective bargaining rights brought outrage from critics.
They secured a recall vote against him, but Walker became the first governor to survive a recall election.
"We won three elections in four years in a blue state," Walker said.
According to aides, Walker campaigns this week in the four early-voting states, including Nevada on Tuesday and Iowa on Friday.