Gov. Scott Walker came roaring out of the gate in the second Republican primary debate, aiming for the party's frontrunner.
"We don't need an apprentice in the White House," Walker quipped at real estate mogul Donald Trump. "We have one right now. And he told us all the things we wanted to hear back in 2008. We don't know who you are or where you're going. We need someone who can actually get the job done."
It should be noted, of course, that while Trump was until recently the host of NBC's "The Apprentice," it was the contestants on the reality show who competed to be Trump's apprentice. He was the boss. Nonetheless, the dig sparked a tussle between Walker and Trump and earned the Wisconsin governor some kudos on social media.
Walker is a different guy than last time...rejuvenated. the serious contender his many admirers had hoped to see— Michael Medved (@MedvedSHOW) September 17, 2015
"Walker compared protesters to ISIS, and ever since has been attacking middle class workers. Turns out, that’s not a winning strategy. His campaign is sinking, and he didn’t say anything tonight to change that," said Democratic National Committee spokesman TJ Helmstetter. "As much as I’m loath to agree with Donald Trump, he’s right about one thing: Walker’s economic record has been a disaster."
The scuffle also demonstrated a marked shift in tone for Walker, who has, until recently, abided by a self-imposed "Reagan Rule" of not criticizing his fellow Republicans. During the debate, Walker's team took swipes and Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Who exceeded expectations? Rubio, Walker, Christie. Who rose as expected? Fiorina," said Brian Fraley, a former Republican operative who now owns the Brookfield consulting firm Edge Messaging. "Who hurt themselves by a lack of progress? Trump, Bush, Paul and Cruz."
But while Walker might have shown more fire on Wednesday than he did in the first primary debate in August, he spoke the least of the 11 candidates who shared the stage.
Throughout the three-hour debate, Walker spoke for eight minutes and 29 seconds, falling into the bottom three with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. To compare, Walker spoke for five minutes and 51 seconds in the two-hour Fox News debate, placing him in the bottom two for speaking time.
Still, Fraley said, Walker performed better in Wednesday's debate than he did in the previous one.
Walker campaign manager Rick Wiley said those eight minutes and 29 seconds amounted to a "flawless performance" by which Walker outlined his plans to "wreak havoc on the status quo in Washington."
“Gov. Walker wore his Harley boots tonight, and it showed ... He put Donald Trump in his place early on, and the billionaire never recovered," Wiley said. "Even when he wasn’t speaking, Walker’s ideas — terminating the Obama-Clinton Iran deal and canceling China’s state visit — dominated the discussion. Whether highlighting the successful, conservative reforms he’s implemented as governor or his plans to repeal Obamacare, create jobs and keep America safe as president, Walker’s message was clear: He will fight and win for the American people and he is ready to do it on day one."
The Chinese president's state visit and the Iran nuclear deal were points of contention among candidates.
"I'd love to play cards with this guy, because Barack Obama folds on everything with Iran," Walker said.
While Walker has pledged to terminate the Iran deal "on day one" in the Oval Office, Bush argued, "it's not a strategy to tear up an agreement."
Bush and Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, also questioned the wisdom of canceling the Chinese state visit.
"I don't think we need to be rash. I don't think we need to be reckless," Paul said.
As the debate wore on, Walker, like most candidates onstage, fell victim to the heat. His brow seemed to glisten more with each pan of the camera, and the camera's gaze seemed to elude him more and more throughout the night.
Dead Nixon just called Scott Walker: I want my lip sweat back!— Bill Maher (@billmaher) September 17, 2015
I'm told some scientists claim Scott Walker is still on this stage.— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) September 17, 2015
The governor fielded questions on funding for Planned Parenthood, the minimum wage and national security. He reiterated many points from previous speeches, including a pledge not to send troops into harm's way unless national security is at risk.
He touted his record in Wisconsin, highlighting cuts to property taxes and income taxes.
"I don't want to argue about how low things are going to be," he said when asked about his claim that the minimum wage is a 'lame' idea. "I want to talk about how are we going to lift everyone up in America."
Ultimately, for Walker, the most prominent narrative seemed to be the lack of attention given to him by the debate's moderators.
I don't think CNN has called on Walker for at least 30 minutes.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) September 17, 2015
In the days leading up to the debate, Walker's national poll numbers had plummeted to 3 percent, from double digits last month. But Walker deftly noted toward the end of the debate, held at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, that former President Ronald Reagan also spent time struggling in the polls.
"Ronald Reagan wasn’t just a conservative Republican, he was an eternal optimist in the American people," Walker said. "And I am, too."
Some who watched the debate were critical of the format, the result of a crowded GOP field.
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said the questions consisted mostly of "snarky attacks and efforts at 'gotcha.'"
"This debate was more like professional wrestling with verbal body slams and piledrivers. The question we all wanted to ask after it was all over was, 'Which candidate suffered traumatic injuries; perhaps even mortal damage?'" Schmidt said.
Schmidt declared former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina the winner, with neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the runners-up.
The losers, in Schmidt's eyes, were the four participants in the undercard debate: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Oh, and Walker.
"Strong, aggressive attack on Trump. Still seemed less impressive than many of the others," Schmidt said. "He just did not have enough of a 'presence' compared to the others. Walker has plunged in the polls and this debate was crucial for him to score high, which he did not do. He repeated his campaign commercial script, which we’ve all heard."
Schmidt said he almost placed Trump in the 'loser' category as well, because he failed to "move the ball" or dominate the debate.
While the primary focus of candidates like Walker in the first debate was to avoid any self-inflicted wounds, the governor now has to reverse the national narrative that he's no longer a viable candidate, and Wednesday's debate was his chance.
"Walker was largely inert on a too-crowded stage," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "His early attempt at a joke, about Trump and 'The Apprentice,' seemed to me to fall flat. It’s hard to say with any confidence what the long-term effect of a debate might be, but if Walker is to bounce back — and he’s capable of it — I doubt anything he did tonight helps him do that."