Scott Walker mounts a last stand in Iowa

Bloomberg News

CHICAGO It's been a thrilling and harrowing roller coaster ride for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

First, the Republican presidential candidate suddenly rose and broke from the pack with a well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, where he repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet with thunderous applause. Almost immediately afterward, support for Walker surged. Iowa polls conducted during late spring and early summer showed him with almost enough support to potentially win the state's Feb. 1 first-in-the-nation caucuses amid an unusually crowded field.

But then came Donald Trump, whose June 16 entry into the race blindsided his GOP rivals, perhaps none more so than Walker. Suddenly Walker was hurling down the ride, faster and faster, seemingly to the bottom. In a span of two months, the Wisconsin governor has gone from leading the Iowa race with 18 percent support in a Qunnipiac University survey released July 1, to just 3 percent support in the polling organization's Sept. 11 tally.

Whether there's another climb up the tracks isn't likely to be known for weeks or months, as Walker deploys a new strategy that places virtually all his chips on Iowa.

The signs of his precipitous fall were all too vivid Sunday afternoon inside Serena's Coffee Cafe in Amana, Iowa, where about 40 stoic supporters showed up for his first retail campaign event in the state since Wednesday's debate.

Gone were most of the network television cameras that had followed Walker much of the summer. Just one network was on hand, along with one reporter-photographer from a nearby station in Cedar Rapids. A second event at a Pizza Ranch in Vinton, Iowa, brought out another small crowd, along with one local TV camera.

Walker lingered at both events, shaking virtually every hand. He'd woken Sunday morning to news that he'd fallen below 1 percent in the most recent national CNN poll, a new all-time low for his candidacy that could further rattle donors.

In an interview, Walker said he's planning to spend 10 days a month in Iowa, "maybe more." Other than "fundraising and visits to New Hampshire and South Carolina," his time will be spent in Iowa, he said.

It will be so much time, he said, that people might think he's running for governor of the state. "People are going to know us like they know their governor in this state, there's no doubt about it," he said.

Walker's swing through three Iowa counties on Sunday brought his total to 33 visited, exactly a third of the number in the state overall. He's committed to hitting all of them before the caucuses.

In the interview, Walker said his campaign is paying its bills and not deficit spending. "We're on pace to do things right," he said. "We're not going to have a 50-state strategy right now."

It was just two months ago that Walker made his first trip into Iowa as declared official presidential candidate, amid soaring poll numbers and expectations for him in the state.

On his latest Iowa swing, the fallen Iowa front-runner showed an increased willingness to draw contrasts with other candidates, including Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

"You wouldn't hire me to build condos for you in New York City, or to be a neurosurgeon, or to run HP, because that's not where my skill sets are," he said in Vinton. "But if you want someone who has got a proven track record of taking on the Washington-based special interests and winning, if that's what you want somebody who can shake things up in Washington then I'm tested unlike anybody else in this race."

Speaking to reporters in Amana, Walker said he's convinced that the donors in his database of 350,000 supporters from all 50 states will stick with him, in part on the strength of that network.

Asked about the latest controversy surrounding Trump's candidacy one that started Thursday when a man at one of his rallies in New Hampshire called President Barack Obama a Muslim who is not a U.S. citizen Walker said he would have corrected the man.

"I don't think that's accurate and I don't think that's helpful for the discussion going forward," he said, adding that if it had happened at one of his event's he would have told the man he disagreed with him.

Interviews with potential supporters at Sunday's events showed Walker's collapse in the polls is weighing on their minds, even though most said they think there's time for him to recover.

Joel McElroy, a factory worker from Belle Plaine, Iowa, said he'd likely support Walker, if he remains a candidate. "It all depends on who is still around when caucus time comes around," he said. "The field will eventually narrow down."

Earl Lanphere, a Walker support from Swisher, Iowa, said he hopes Walker "holds in there long enough" until the field narrows down and Trump loses some standing. "I'm not going to give up on him," Lanphere said of Walker.

Walker's aides argue their candidate still isn't well known in Iowa or nationally, so there's room for growth. A national Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 27 showed 43 percent of registered Republicans haven't heard enough about him to form an opinion of him, compared to just 9 percent for Trump.

In the most recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, Walker was backed by just 8 percent of likely caucus-goers, less than half what he recorded in a late-May Iowa Poll. The only real upside for him was that he was the only candidate besides Carson to score a favorability rating above 70 percent.

As Trump has surged, Walker has been hurt more than any other candidate. Known as a disciplined campaigner in Wisconsin, he's suffered self-inflicted wounds on the national stage and turned into two debate performances that have been labeled lackluster.

Walker's focus on Iowa, even if successful, could put at risk his viability, should the nomination process drag into the spring or early summer of 2016, as Republican leaders and strategists increasingly expect. If he doesn't raise enough money to look and play like a national candidate, he might not have the resources to compete past Iowa.

As the fall campaign gets underway, Walker is getting some Iowa help from the super political action committee backing him. The Unintimidated PAC started running television spots the day after Labor Day on Walker's behalf as part of a $7 million campaign in the state.

Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and Republican activist who was once Gov. Terry Branstad's chief of staff, said he doesn't see a path for Walker in Iowa, given his tumble.

"He looks and acts and talks like a politician and that's not what people want," said Gross, who is neutral in the race, although also a longtime Bush family ally.

Garland S. Tucker III, a Walker donor who is chief executive of Raleigh, N.C.-based Triangle Capital Corp., said he remains confident, at least for now. "I haven't given up, by any means," he said in an interview. "Sooner or later Trump's message is going to wear pretty thin."

Asked if he has a second-choice, should Walker exit the race or fail to regain any traction, Tucker said no. "I haven't found a need to do that yet," he said.

On a conference call with donors on Thursday, Walker and his team tried to calm the nerves of donors. One of the speakers was Todd Ricketts, a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs and one of Walker's two national finance chairmen. He told those on the call that their job was to "keep the gas in the Winnebago."

At least on Sunday, the gas-guzzling red and blue recreational vehicle that Walker's campaign rents for his travel in Iowa was still motoring across the state's interstates and highways.

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