Scott Walker gave a pretty rousing announcement speech without notes or teleprompter about “big, bold ideas from outside of Washington,” but it would be hard to say he has generated a whole lot of excitement.
Maybe that’s because on Monday night he became the 15th Republican candidate to jump into the race. Maybe it’s because President Obama’s announcement of a nuclear deal with Iran yesterday knocked him out of the headlines. Maybe it’s because he is missing a certain pizzazz.
Despite his lack of a national profile, the Wisconsin governor shot to the top of the polls when he started campaigning for president. He was a hero in conservative circles because he clobbered the public employee unions in his state and triumphed in a recall election.
Yet the media consensus is that he stumbled and stalled. There was a long period where Walker seemed to fade from the media radar, even before the coverage turned All Trump All the Time. The governor was undoubtedly spending time fundraising and meeting with policy experts, and, well, he’s also got a state to run. But that enabled the spotlight to shift to Jeb and Marco, and Ted and Rand, and ultimately The Donald.
While Walker leads in Iowa, he is tied nationally for sixth (with Rubio) in a recent CNN poll, but is third, with 8 percent (behind Trump and Bush), in a new USA Today survey.
But political junkies should keep in mind that one in five Republican primary voters in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll didn’t even recognize Scott Walker’s name.
When I met Walker, he struck me as a meat-and-potatoes guy: Solid, disciplined, earnest, the son of a Baptist preacher was not at all flashy. That means he could wear well over a long campaign, but could also be overshadowed on a debate stage.
The New York Times' take yesterday: “While Mr. Walker is well positioned to compete in the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, which he considers a must-win state, he has lost momentum in those other three states [New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada] because of long absences, relatively modest political operations or increasingly hard-line positions that appear intended for Iowa conservatives.
“His comments are eyebrow-raising at times: On Monday night, he criticized the minimum wage as among the ‘lame ideas’ from the ‘left,’ saying on Fox News Channel’s ‘Hannity’ that the country should focus on improving worker skills instead.”
This follows a much more negative setup piece in the Times that depicted him as not the sharpest knife in the drawer:
“After listening to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as he has traveled the country preparing his campaign for president, which officially begins on Monday, admiring voters most often describe him as ‘authentic,’ ‘real’ and ‘approachable,’ Mr. Walker’s advisers say.
“Two words these voters do not use about him? ‘Smart’ and ‘sophisticated.’”
Ouch. And, of course, there’s the obligatory reference to Walker having dropped out of college (a few credits short of graduation).
Ed Goeas, a senior Walker adviser, didn’t help matters when he told the Times that the candidate hopes to avoid a Sarah Palin problem—a contender whose missteps erase an initial wave of popularity.
Veteran Washington Post reporter Dan Balz says that in a polarized age, Walker “offers no quarter, no retreat and no respite. He is a Midwesterner who may lack the charisma of others in the race but whose message is designed to rouse his party’s base in ways others may not. He is a paradox: colorless and unflappable, but a warrior still.
“He may lack the establishment pedigree of a Jeb Bush, the personality of a Chris Christie, the bombast of a Donald Trump, the youthful freshness of a Marco Rubio (though they are only a few years apart in age) or the hard-edge of Ted Cruz.”
And then there is the flip-flop question: “He has changed his views on immigration, emerging as a hardliner in tune with his party’s base after flirting much earlier with an embrace of a more comprehensive reform package. He has changed his tone on social issues, seemingly softening as he sought reelection last fall and then toughening up as he has gotten ready to run for president.”
Walker acknowledged shifting his position on illegal immigration in an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace.
In Slate, self-described conservative Reihan Salam calls Walker the perfect candidate—on paper.
He cites “the questions that have been raised about Walker’s failure to surround himself with high-quality personnel. Eliana Johnson of National Review reported back in March that the Wisconsin governor relies primarily on his own political judgment when making decisions, and that this self-reliance was undermining his embryonic presidential campaign. She pointed to botched hires and awkward flip-flops on a number of hotly debated policy questions, from the legal status of unauthorized immigrants to ethanol mandates, as indications that he was not quite ready for prime time. Jonathan Martin, writing for the New York Times, offered a similar assessment earlier this month, adding that Walker’s tendency to ‘think like an operative’ might make him seem opportunistic and unprincipled.
“All of this rings true to me. Walker has seemed oddly unmoored in his first few months on the campaign trail.”
Salon says Walker has a demographic problem:
“When you look at Walker’s victories in Wisconsin, you start to understand why he’s so gung-ho on winning Iowa. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, a full 88 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin was white, and Walker won 56 percent of the white vote. African Americans comprised just six percent of the vote, and Walker lost them 90-10. In 2012, the recall election, 91 percent of Wisconsin voters were white, and Walker won 57 percent of their votes. Among the five percent of voters who were black, Walker lost 94-5. …
“And for the moment, at least, he seems more intent on exacerbating the GOP’s demographic troubles than ameliorating them. A big part of Walker’s rightward lurch has been his hardline stance in opposition to immigration reform, which has caused him no small amount of difficulty as he’s flailed about trying to explain what his actual position is.”
Back in February, National Review portrayed Walker as not ready for prime time:
“The 200-plus donors assembled Saturday at the Club for Growth’s winter conference were eager to see that Scott Walker. Instead, they got the Walker who is shaky, unsure of himself, and hazy on policy details.”
As an indication of the intensity on the conservative battlefield, Rick Santorum just attacked Walker—over his wife. Tonette Walker had told the Washington Post she was “torn” over the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, and her two sons were "disappointed" in their father's stance.
“Spouses matter,” Santorum told the Daily Caller. “When your spouse is not in sync with you — particularly on cultural issues, moral issues — [you] tend not to be as active on those issues.”
We’ll have to see how Walker does at counterpunching. And the man who complained loudly about “gotcha” questions from journalists, and then dialed back on interviews, will also need to take on a media establishment that views his campaign as sputtering.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.