By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who signed sweeping curbs on public unions into law on March 11, may be emerging as a potential 2012 Republican presidential contender, according to a poll issued on Thursday.
The phone survey by Public Policy Polling of 642 registered voters on March 10-13 found that Walker's favorability among Republican voters was 55 percent positive and 11 percent negative, a spread of 44 points.
That pushed Walker ahead of other possible Republican contenders like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"That makes him already more popular with the party base than Mike Huckabee (+42 at 58/16), Sarah Palin (+40 at 63/23), Mitt Romney (+21 at 47/26), and Newt Gingrich (+19 at 49/30)," the polling group said in a release accompanying the results.
"None of the folks most seriously considering this race have been able to get any momentum yet, leaving a lot of room for a fresher face to enter and get a lot of traction," it said. "Walker's crusade against the unions has put him in a position where he could be that guy."
A spokesman for Walker did not immediately return a request for comment.
Walker, who won the governor's race against Democrat Tom Barrett last November with 52 percent of the vote, signed the controversial union curbs into law after weeks of protests that drew thousands of protesters to the state capital.
The most recent poll by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, found voters in the state remain deeply divided over Walker and his plan.
A WPRI poll of 603 Wisconsinites conducted in late February and early March found 51 percent of those surveyed somewhat or strongly opposed to Walker and his anti-union plan while 46 percent somewhat or strongly in favor.
Walker said the law was aimed at protecting taxpayers and jobs, arguing it will improve the business climate and help the state's private sector create 250,000 jobs.
He said the state needs the restrictions on bargaining to deal with funding shortfalls as the state contends with a $3.6 billion deficit in the upcoming two-year budget.
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher. Editing by Peter Bohan)