'Dead Man Walker' Tries to Prove Reports Are Greatly Exaggerated

Can the Wisconsin governor seize the debate stage to regain the momentum that the summer of Trump has cost him?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (L) real estate tycoon Donald Trump (C), and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) return to the stage following a break in the Republican presidential primary debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographer: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

On the presidential campaign trail, Governor Scott Walker likes to mention a March 2011 Time magazine headline that asked whether he was “Dead Man Walker” after his brutal fight with organized labor in Wisconsin. It ran above a story about then-brewing plans to try to recall him from office. That effort was unsuccessful, making the headline a badge of pride for him.

Walker uses it to remind voters and pundits that he managed to win three statewide elections over the course of four years amid fierce opposition and millions in spending from state and national Democratic forces. It's a memory Walker especially needs to conjure now.

The two-term governor, who was expected to be one of the strongest contenders in the sprawling Republican field, arguably has the most at stake Wednesday night as 11 candidates gather on a debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.

Since the Republican debaters last met Aug. 6, no one has been hurt more by the surge of billionaire Donald Trump than the governor who sold himself as an everyman dad who rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and frugally shops at Kohl's.

Republican presidential hopeful wisconsin governor scott walker washes down a 'cheezborger' with schlitz beer at the famed billy goat tavern during campaign stop on july 27, 2015 in chicago, illinois.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker washes down a “cheezborger” with a Schlitz beer at the famed Billy Goat Tavern during a campaign stop on July 27 in Chicago.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A hero of conservatives for his confrontation with labor unions, Walker has seen his status fall from from a top-tier candidate to someone attracting just 2 percent in national polls and not much better in early voting states. Anything short of a break-out performance could further threaten his fundraising during a key time: the third quarter comes to a close in two weeks.

“Because he has slipped so far down, he's going to have to be much more vocal and spontaneously aggressive,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “There is the danger that donors could get nervous and walk away if he doesn't show some kind of momentum and signs of life.”

At least one Walker donor interviewed Tuesday said he remains optimistic.

“If anybody is rattled by poll numbers at this point, they aren't thinking clearly,” said Chart Westcott, a Dallas-based biotech investor backing Walker. “I have full faith and confidence in Scott that he will deliver the message that he thinks needs to be delivered to move hearts and minds.” Westcott said he's “agnostic” on whether Walker needs to directly confront Trump. “He needs to tell his story, first and foremost,” he said. “He's got conservative scars that Donald Trump doesn't have.”

Walker has lots of recent experience on debate stages, but not necessarily the kind he needs now. He's had weak or uninspiring opponents in his races for governor, allowing him to distinguish himself in Wisconsin debates as folksy and genuine. That's harder to do on a stage with 10 others, including some who are flashier and quicker on their feet. At the first presidential debate, Walker gave a mostly reserved performance that was labeled as lackluster. At times during that session, he seemed to fade into the background, often not even using the full amount of time allotted to him. In his closing statement, he described himself as “aggressively normal.”

“He has to show he isn't afraid to shed the talking points,” Bonjean said. “He may have to go after Donald Trump to make that work.”

Trump's outsider political persona, along with his confrontational style, has made Walker—someone who has spent almost his entire career in politics—look mild and scripted in comparison. Walker has pledged to be more combative in this debate.

“If somebody wants to see somebody that is going to go out and wreak havoc on Washington, I'm going to lay that out there in the next debate and every chance I get, because we wreaked havoc against the status quo in my home state capital in Madison,” he said earlier this month on Fox News.

Walker aides said their candidate has been practicing with a small group of advisers, both in Madison and on the road. They say he'll also be peppier on Wednesday and point to the fact that polls show he's still not well known nationally, so there's room for growth.

Someone who has had a front-row seat to watching the ups and downs of a presidential campaign said Walker needs to keep his confidence high despite the poll numbers. 

“Walker should be thinking like a jockey running in the Kentucky Derby,” said R.C. Hammond, who worked as Newt Gingrich's spokesman in the 2012 campaign. “It's all about how you finish.  Stick with the pack right now, but have the energy to turn it on for the final stretch into the Iowa caucuses.”

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