In preparation for his first debate as a presidential candidate, Gov. Scott Walker is taking a cue from Aaron Rodgers and relaxing.
"The next couple days, you really just kind of relax," Walker told Fox News' Megyn Kelly on Monday, following an appearance at a candidate forum at St. Anselm's College in New Hampshire.
Walker said he'll be back home in Wisconsin for the first time in two weeks, and will spend that time with his wife, Tonette, and sons Matt and Alex. Thursday morning he plans to attend the opening of the Wisconsin State Fair before heading to Cleveland for the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 election.
The debate, hosted by Fox News and Facebook, will feature the top 10 candidates leading the polls.
Political analysts and strategists agree that, for better or worse, real estate mogul Donald Trump will steal the show. The bombastic candidate surged to the top of the polls in spite of — or because of — the harsh criticism he's leveled at nearly every candidate in the field, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Walker told Kelly he's not planning to take on any candidates directly on Thursday.
"I’m going to talk about what I’m for. I think people, voters are tired of politicians who tell you what they’re against and who they’re against. They want to know what you’re for," Walker said. "But I think part of the reason why those polls are that way is people want a fighter, and right now they think Mr. Trump is a fighter. I think part of the reason why I’m polling in second is because people think I’m a fighter. I think in the end, what will make the difference in how we win the nomination is people don’t just want a fighter, they want someone who can fight and win. I’m the only one in this race who has shown consistently, on the common-sense conservative reforms, that I can win even in a blue state. I can clearly fight and win in America."
Brian Fraley, a former Republican operative who now owns the Brookfield consulting firm Edge Messaging, said he expects Trump to consume "all of the oxygen in the room" and be rewarded with a majority of post-debate media attention.
With Trump onstage, Fraley said, all standard expectations for debate decorum are out the window.
"That's in part why the media loves Trump and gives him so much coverage. It will be interesting to see if any of the competitors try to mix it up with Walker, or if they ignore him," Fraley said. "Trump has tried to say that Wisconsin is a mess, but his reliance on failed, generalized lefty talking points hasn't hurt Walker. Perhaps Trump or others seize on specifics to which Walker would feel compelled to react. How he responds is important."
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said he doesn't expect a front-runner like Walker to tangle with Trump.
Candidates can count this debate as a success simply by not making a major mistake or looking incompetent, Kondik said, adding that the field is a long way from any significant winnowing. A reasonable goal for the first debate, he said, is "avoiding self-inflicted wounds."
While not a debate, the New Hampshire Voters First forum put 14 GOP candidates side-by-side in a national broadcast on Monday. Despite a two-hour time frame, the hurried question-and-answer exchanges drew comparisons to speed-dating and no bombshell moments emerged.
Walker stayed strictly on message Monday, hardly straying from the familiar themes and phrasing of his stump speech. On a few questions, he avoided giving direct answers, including whether he believes climate change is caused by human activity and how the state budget will leave Wisconsin with a surplus.
"Gov. Walker has a tendency to quickly dismiss challenges and get back to his main message points. However, I think the electorate is looking for more than just message discipline. They will respond to passion. They will appreciate Walker if he firmly defends his record and then gets back to his agenda," Fraley said. "Can Gov. Walker mix it up without looking defensive or petty? Or will he merely play it safe and live to fight another day? That's what I'll be watching for."
Fraley said it's possible Walker won't be aiming to set himself apart on Thursday, noting that he's running a campaign for the long haul and has secured a steady foothold in the top three, along with a growing national network and a "fairly healthy" war chest.
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said he sees Walker setting himself apart as the "union killer." He expects other candidates to target Walker for his lack of foreign policy experience.
Kondik agreed that Walker will be tested not only on his foreign policy chops, but on how he handles that weakness. That's part of a larger question, he said, of whether Walker is ready for prime time.
Walker has argued that his track record of enacting conservative policies — "big, bold reforms" — in a state that Democrats typically win during presidential elections and surviving a recall to win three elections in four years shows that he has a unique combination of conviction and electability not seen in other candidates.
So far, he has directed any outward negativity toward Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Republicans' presumed opponent. No matter who the Democratic nominee is, Walker will present himself as a "new, fresh face."
But Schmidt went after that argument.
"He's 100 percent a politician," Schmidt said, adding that Walker has "never done anything else" beyond politics since he left a job at the Red Cross in 1994, shortly after winning election to the state Assembly.
The liberal group One Wisconsin Now also took issue with Walker's "fresh face" pitch, arguing that he has, in fact, held elected office much longer than Clinton did.
Still, Walker sits in a good position heading into Thursday night.
Walker has "arguably the best story of any of the candidates" to tell Republican voters, Kondik said, adding that his weaknesses largely stem from a lack of experience with foreign policy and dealing with national scrutiny.
"Additionally, if Walker says or does something foolish, inevitably his lack of a college degree will come up, fairly or unfairly," Kondik said. "I don’t think his rivals or the press can directly attack him over that — it will make them look petty — but if he gives audiences a reason to question his intelligence or seasoning, the college issue will invariably emerge."
TJ Helmstetter, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, argued that the debate will offer a "showcase of out-of-touch, outdated, outlandish ideas that won’t work for the middle class."
"Prime example: Scott Walker will talk about creating jobs, even though his own jobs agency in Wisconsin is under fire for mismanagement and questionable tax credits to his political donors. Walker might also talk about balancing the budget, even though Wisconsin ended the last budget cycle facing a $2.2 billion shortfall. And he might talk about bringing Wisconsin to Washington, even though he’s spent the last five years turning Wisconsin into one of the most politically divisive atmospheres in the country," Helmstetter said. "All in all, we’re expecting to see the same-old failed Republican playbook we’ve seen all along."
Despite Walker's relative inexperience in competing against members of his own party at a national level, he may have the right idea with his "relax" strategy, Fraley indicated, noting that traditional mock debate sessions focus on just a few competitors — not ten.
"Think about it. The NBA finals in Cleveland had just as many players on the court. On Thursday, Trump could very well hog the ball. Even if he doesn't, the post-debate media coverage will focus on him," Fraley said. "This ten-person forum is unlikely to provide voters a lot of new information. Nevertheless, the best debaters know debates are not speeches, they are conversations. The candidate with the best zingers may get the most initial press coverage, but the ones who listen and use their answers to engage voters will get the most out of this first debate."