ROCHESTER, N.H. — As Scott Walker traveled through New Hampshire’s 10 counties this weekend on a rented Harley-Davidson Road King, the 2016 presidential candidate kept getting questions like these: Are you worried? Are you going to be okay? What about Donald Trump?
Walker has plummeted in early polls, falling from being one of the front-runners to registering as yet another Republican hopeful with single-digit support far behind Trump. His decline has been especially pronounced here in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary, where his polling averages resemble a ski slope — dropping from a 20 percent peak in April to just 5 percent now.
During his two-day tour here pegged to Labor Day, Walker sought to show off his average-guy side — wearing a T-shirt and jeans while riding a motorcycle — and to tout his success in weakening unions in Wisconsin, where he is governor.
But he instead spent a good chunk of the weekend addressing his viability as a candidate. He talked about former front-runners who never became president. He compared competing in the presidential race to running a half-mile track event in high school, sticking with the pack until the finish line is close. He also likened his strategy to skeet shooting, aiming the gun at the spot in the sky where the clay pigeon is headed, not where it already is. And he said the national media has been focused on the wrong issues, glorifying the wrong candidates and twisting his words.
“Just like we saw in this ride today — we went up and down hills and around mountains and around corners — in the end, there are going to be ups and downs in a campaign,” Walker said at the Pink Cadillac diner here in Rochester on Monday afternoon.
Later, he told a supporter inside: “We just have to stay constant, stay who you are.”
Staying constant, however, has been one of his biggest challenges. On key issues of the day — from calls to end birthright citizenship to the jailing of a Kentucky county official who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses — Walker has struggled more than other candidates to clearly explain where he stands.
On several issues, he has attempted to not take a side — including when asked this week what he would do to directly address the crisis facing Europe as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries search for a safe place to live. Walker said the United States must fight the Islamic State, which he says is at the root of the crisis, but he wouldn’t take a stance beyond that.
“I’m not president today, and I can’t be president today,” Walker said in Rochester on Monday. “Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical.”
“He was my number one; I was very excited when he entered the race,” said Nancy Barrett, 46, a New Hampshire mother of two who met Walker over a homestyle breakfast in Twin Mountain on Monday. “But he’s been losing me a little when some of the other candidates have come out a lot stronger on illegal immigration and are challenging some of the establishment policies.”
Barrett’s new No. 1 candidate: Trump.
Walker’s problems followed him to New Hampshire. He was greeted by a handful to a couple dozen people at each stop — far fewer than he attracted soon after launching his campaign in mid-July. A few visitors were Democrats looking to grill him on labor issues, nuclear weapons and immigration. At the Salem GOP Labor Day Picnic, Walker chatted about his love of Harleys with three Republicans wearing Trump T-shirts.
On Sunday afternoon, a rider in the governor’s pack fell off his bike, not seriously injuring himself but slowing the group down. The sun was setting as Walker pulled into the last stop of the day in Plymouth. It was nearly dark when he began to answer questions from the media. He was obviously tired after a long day.
A reporter from Wisconsin asked Walker whether his lack of clear stances on recent issues is hurting him in the polls as voters opt for Trump’s clarity. The governor — who is typically unflappable on the campaign trail — cut the reporter off.
“I don’t think the issue is that at all. I think you’re totally misreading,” he said sharply. “You guys in the media might be talking amongst yourselves and thinking that’s it, but that’s not what I hear from voters out there.”
He said voters want to hear about his plans to shift power from Washington to the states and grow the economy.
“I think what’s hurting anybody in the polls is that the media wants to talk about issues that the public doesn’t care about — or, I shouldn’t say doesn’t care about. The media wants to talk about issues that aren’t at the top of the list of what people want to talk about,” Walker said. “At the last debate, nobody asked those sorts of questions. You guys don’t ask those sorts of questions. But those are the questions people ask us.”
Walker’s campaign staff is eager for a standout moment that could catapult him back to the top tier. They want to introduce him to more voters through cable-news appearances, conservative radio spots, interviews with local reporters in key early-voting states and meetings with grass-roots activists. Walker is nearly constantly on the campaign trail.
But those efforts come with a risk: He keeps saying things that get him into trouble — like when he was asked late last month whether the United States should build a wall along the 5,525-mile Canadian border, and he responded by calling it a “legitimate” idea.
By the time Walker’s campaign made clear more than a day later that he did not actually want to construct such a wall — and that the governor was instead raising concerns about security on the northern border — the notion had already been ingrained in people’s minds. As Walker arrived in Plymouth on Sunday evening, a black Jeep sped by and a man shouted: “Build that wall around Canada, Scott! Build that wall! That’s a great idea!”
“It’s terrible what they’re doing to you,” Brenda Cameron of Dover, N.H., told Walker during the Pink Cadillac visit Monday. She blamed fellow conservatives for pinning the crazy idea on him, but he told her it was the media’s fault.
“Boy, they made you sound so stupid,” she said.
Walker nodded along at the ridiculousness of a northern wall and said: “I’ve never said that, nor would I. . . . When they say things like that, you just have to laugh and roll your eyes.”