Over the last three months, the GOP’s Iowa front-runner has become an incredible, shrinking presence on the campaign trail. Sure, he’s still touring the country, introducing himself to voters, telling them how unafraid he was to stand up to the unions and liberal protesters he battled in Wisconsin, but he’s also ducking out of uncontrolled situations, skipping questions from the press, and spending more time on small or private events, usually packed with friendly crowds. Last week, when he traveled to Israel — usually an occasion to invite reporters or hold a press conference — Walker held no press events. The same was true last month when he went to Europe. He skipped the press on a recent tour of the Mexico border, at a campaign stop in South Carolina, and even at a local chamber of commerce event in his home state of Wisconsin.
This is not a side of Walker the reporters who cover him are used to. Back in January, Walker gave an impassioned speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit hosted by Representative Steve King. Pacing the stage, Walker talked about his fight with the public employee unions and the protests that engulfed the capital. He recounted the “thousands of protesters outside our home,” the way his kids were targeted on Facebook and followed at the grocery store, and the graphic death threats he and his family members received, including one sent to Walker promising to “gut my wife like a deer.” Walker told the crowd that the prayers and support that came from Iowans and others around the country inspired him to keep fighting and win, and that if it was possible to win on a conservative reform agenda in Wisconsin, which hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1984, it was possible in America. The reception among Iowa Republicans catapulted him to the top of the 2016 field.
“Walker has repeatedly shown a fearlessness, and even affinity, for patiently taking questions from reporters following the most mundane events or in the face of embarrassing slip-ups,” wrote the Associated Press reporter Scott Bauer, who first noticed the governor’s diminished presence in March.
It’s not that the Wisconsin governor, who holds a lead in most of the Iowa polls and is just trailing Jeb Bush nationally, has been completely absent from the campaign trail. Last Saturday, he spoke at the Iowa GOP’s annual Lincoln Dinner and appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation the next day. But compared to other leading candidates, his presence has been notably muted. Jeb Bush has been a near-constant presence on the trail for weeks, taking questions from the press (and occasionally being tripped up by them). Even the other top-tier candidates whose day jobs keep them away from Washington, like Marco Rubio, are still managing to make campaign moves from afar. Rubio held a big foreign-policy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, and Rand Paul delivered an epic floor speech against the NSA that helped bring in new supporters to his campaign.
There’s a common feeling among Iowa GOP insiders that, as prominent Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats put it to me, “his campaign intentionally put in the clutch,” on Walker’s meteoric rise, for two reasons: One, to manage his momentum going into 2016 and keep him from peaking too early. The other, to give the candidate time to prepare for the scrutiny that being a front-runner brings.
That attention began soon after his Freedom Summit speech. First, in early February, on a trip to London, Walker refused to answer questions on foreign policy in ways that troubled internationally minded conservatives. “I just don’t think you talk about foreign policy while you’re on foreign soil,” he said. At the same event, he responded to a question about whether he believed in evolution by saying, “I’m going to punt on that one as well.” He told reporters that he didn’t know whether Obama was a Christian. Then there was the clumsy suggestion, in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, that taking on protesters at the state capital had prepared him to deal with ISIS and other threats abroad.
“There’s no comparison between the two, let me be perfectly clear. I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling a difficult situation was the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with,” he clarified after, which only underscored his lack of foreign-policy experience. At the Iowa Ag Summit just over a week later, Walker answered a question about a federal ethanol mandate that gave some people the impression that he’d flip-flopped on his prior opposition to it.
After pushing back on the allegations that he’d changed his position, Walker got quiet. He went to closed-press events hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and spoke at a New Hampshire Republican grassroots event, which was open for press attendance but not questions.
The reduced public schedule gave him time to work behind the scenes to compensate for weaknesses that could, if unchecked, threaten his campaign. The most urgent is foreign policy. “He certainly doesn’t have a lot of strength in foreign policy, and ISIS and terrorism have become a huge, huge issues for the Republicans here,” says Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State professor who makes close study of the caucuses. Since his CPAC gaffe, Walker aides have been stressing the governor’s meetings with the party’s foreign-policy leaders, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former CIA director Michael Hayden. And on the campaign trail, Walker’s been talking up his trips abroad: In his speech at the Lincoln Dinner, the annual Iowa-GOP fund-raiser, Walker devoted considerable time to his trip to Israel, mentioning closed-door meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Knesset.
At the same time, he’s run into trouble with an unexpected constituency: social conservatives. Their skepticism about Walker stems from an ad he cut on abortion in the height of his reelection campaign last year. Walker, under fire from pro-choice groups, said that while he was pro-life, “there’s no doubt in my mind that the decision of whether or not to end a pregnancy is an agonizing one,” and discussed his support for legislation that he said “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.” Some conservatives interpreted the ad as less staunchly anti-abortion than they’d like. “I’ve heard a lot of comments regarding the commercial,” says Vander Plaats. He also said that a Walker comment on whether or not the state should amend its constitution after a court struck down a marriage ban — “I think it’s resolved,” Walker told an interviewer — would be troubling to social conservatives. “There will be a lot of cause for pause with those kinds of comments,” he says. “If a federal judge says the people of Wisconsin need to turn in their guns, do you say, ‘Well, the courts have spoken’? Those are issues I know he’s going to have to address.” This week, Walker traveled to Washington to meet with social conservatives on Capitol Hill, and in speeches he’s been highlighting his upbringing as a Baptist preacher’s son who defunded Planned Parenthood in his time as governor.
Iowa conservatives expect the behind-the-scenes machinations to work. “When I talk to activists, they want Scott Walker to be the guy,” says Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican and the former political director of the state GOP. “They view him as the conservative alternative to a national frontrunner, and in some peoples’ eyes, that’s Jeb Bush. There’s such a strong desire among Iowa Republicans that he’s the guy, but he needs to sell them on that.”
He also needs to make sure they don’t get sick of him. “He’s still leading, so that’s the good news,” says Vander Plaats. “Unless you ask Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, or Newt Gingrich. They’ll say you don’t want to be leading this early.”
Update: Walker’s campaign vigorously denies that he has been less accessible to the press, and sent along a list detailing a number of interviews he’s given over the last two months, including with local reporters in Iowa and New Hampshire and with conservative outlets. The campaign did not respond to initial requests for comment regarding Walker’s media availability.