Scott Walker repeatedly pitches himself as the only Republican running for president who knows how to fight and win.
The Wisconsin governor’s strategy for the first GOP debate on Thursday night, however, is quite different: Be the nice guy who ignores everyone else on stage and shares an optimistic vision for the future.
“I’m not going to worry about the other candidates. They can speak for themselves,” Walker said during a campaign stop at a pizza parlor in New Hampshire on Monday. “People are tired of politicians telling you who they’re against and what they’re against... Americans want to vote for something and for someone.”
But trying to be both the steadfast warrior and the likable guy has at times left Walker fumbling. His fighting experience is with Democrats, but he will have to battle members of his own party during the first debate, in Cleveland. Recent criticism from fellow Republicans has often prompted Walker to play down or abandon stances — or to quickly distance himself from people working to get him to the White House.
Walker’s debate strategy is the same one he used during three gubernatorial elections in four years in Wisconsin. When he first ran for governor, in 2010, and faced a Republican primary, he defended himself against attacks but did not lob any of his own.
That approach may not work when Walker and nine other GOP candidates gather on stage and try to stand out from the crowd. Plus, there’s Donald Trump, the self-promoting real estate magnate and television personality who is leading Walker and former Florida governor Jeb Bush in recent polls and specializes in wild attacks on his rivals.
“Anything might happen with Trump — literally anything. It’s going to be good TV,” said Eric Anton, a New York investment broker who helped organize a Manhattan fundraiser for Walker last week that attracted 100 people. But Anton said that Walker has the discipline to respond to attacks while staying optimistic and that that’s the right strategy as he builds his name recognition.
It’s unclear how much time Walker has spent preparing for the first debate, as he has been traveling continually since he began his campaign on July 13. Over the past three weeks, he has crossed the country five times, visited at least 13 states for a few dozen public events and private fundraisers, including two town hall meetings and three forums that he considers dress rehearsals for the debate.
When questions come up on the campaign trail, Walker often responds with passages from his stump speech or other scripted answers, rarely deviating by even a few words. During a recent summit in Ames, Iowa, for religious social conservatives, an audience member accused the governor of waiting four days to respond to videos critical of Planned Parenthood. Walker launched into his usual response for abortion-related questions — not mentioning that he had forcefully responded to the videos within hours of their release.
Walker has spent most of his adult life campaigning, and he is far more of a strategist than a policy wonk. He is known to monitor crowd reactions during a speech and listen for topics most mentioned during meet-and-greets, then subtly shift his wording to better connect with voters, according to a longtime adviser. But those shifts can get him into trouble — especially now that he’s facing Republicans on a national stage instead of Wisconsin Democrats.
Walker has been accused of backing down from several fights this year when his stances turned out not to be popular within his party. First, there was his call to dramatically reform the University of Wisconsin system and change its mission statement, a concept he promptly abandoned when protests erupted. A aide later called it a “drafting error.” He also abandoned a proposal to severely limit the types of documents that reporters and others can request through the state’s open records law, a change fought by liberal and conservative activists.
When the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in late June, Walker said it was a “grave mistake” that should be corrected with a constitutional amendment — attracting criticism from some prominent donors and his two college-age sons. Walker seemed to move away from that position during a town hall meeting in southwest Iowa last Friday, laying out how difficult it would be to make such a change and saying that defending religious liberty would be the “most appropriate and timely” use of a president’s time.
In mid-July, Walker said the Boy Scouts should keep a blanket ban on openly gay leaders because the policy “protected children and advanced Scout values.” The comment attracted criticism from LGBT rights activists and others, and Walker’s staff quickly clarified that he was referring to protecting children from ugly political debate, not physical harm.
That prompted a tweet from Bush spokesman Tim Miller: “Give me a break that’s not what he was saying.” The next day, Walker said it’s up to the Boy Scouts, not him, to decide whether gay leaders should be allowed.
During a meeting of mega-donors in California on Saturday evening, Walker denied having flip-flopped on issues, although he acknowledged that his positions on immigration have shifted as he has learned more about the issue. “But for others,” he said, “I’ve been fairly consistent.”
When something goes wrong, Walker and his team are quick to distance themselves and deflect responsibility. When a digital strategist tweeted critical things about Iowa, she soon quit. When conservatives recoiled after a pro-Walker super PAC hired an adviser with whom they have clashed, Walker said in a Fox News Channel interview, “Well, he doesn’t work for me, he works for the super PAC.” And when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Walker skipped the line at a famed cheesesteak restaurant, the campaign asked for this clarification: “When he arrived, he went to get in line and the owner of Geno’s escorted the governor to the front.”
Walker also has tread lightly around his Republican rivals, even as they go after him. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) has said governors like Walker would not be ready to handle foreign policy decisions. Bush questioned Walker’s plan to rip up the nuclear deal with Iran on his first day in office, gently suggesting that the president might want to first appoint a secretary of state and check with the United States’ allies. Trump called Wisconsin a “catastrophe from an economic and a financial standpoint.”
In response to Rubio, Walker pointed to the success of former California governor Ronald Reagan. To Bush, he said the president must be prepared to take swift actions of all sorts on the first day in office so as not to waste time. And to Trump, he accused the celebrity of stealing talking points from the Democrats — a group Walker knows how to fight.
“He’s using the talking points of the Democrats,” Walker said on Fox News Channel last week. “All those points were disproven in those last three elections, and we’ll prove that going forward.”