Oxon Hill, Maryland (CNN) - Republicans hoping to win a national election need to adopt an "optimistic" and "relevant" message, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told an enthusiastic crowd of conservative activists Saturday.
The tea party favorite, who survived a recall election in 2012 after curbing collective bargaining rights for public employees, said the GOP's focus on fiscal issues like the federal debt and spending cuts ignore policies that have a real effect on Americans' lives. Instead, he argued Republicans should look beyond Washington to find a new direction for the party.
"Real reform doesn't happen in our nation's capital. It happens in statehouses all over the country," Walker said, adding the nation's 30 Republican governors were enacting "real reform" around the nation.
"In states, to be successful, we have to be optimistic, we have to be relevant, and most important we have to be courageous," Walker told the Conservative Political Action Conference, being held in a Maryland suburb of Washington. The gathering of mostly young conservatives gave Walker one of the loudest receptions thus far in the three-day conference, which concludes later Saturday.
His biggest applause came at the end of his remarks, when he told the cheering crowd, "In America, we take a day off to celebrate the Fourth of July, not the 15th of April," the day federal income tax filings are due.
Walker's 2011 decision to limit power for labor unions drew intense nationwide focus, as public employees took over the state capitol to loudly protest the decision. The recall election, which took place in May 2012, drew millions in campaign cash from major political groups and thrust Walker onto the national political stage.
He was considered a potential running mate for Mitt Romney in last year's presidential election, and he hasn't ruled out a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
In his speech Saturday, Walker took a decidedly different approach than that of his fellow Wisconsinite, Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget chairman. Ryan has led Republicans in Congress with an almost singular focus on the nation's debt and deficits.
That approach ignores the reality many Americans are living, Walker argued Saturday.
"As conservatives, we shouldn't take a back seat to anybody. We have a moral cause, and it's not just about balancing budgets," Walker said.
Pointing to his collective bargaining decision, Walker said changes being enacted in Republican-run states could become models for the nation.
"We're the ones who care about education," he said, after describing ways his new law ended tenure for public school teachers. "We're the ones who want our children to move forward. That's about being relevant. We're the ones who care about fixing things.”