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Gov. Scott Walker stayed above the fray and out of the spotlight in his first debate as a presidential candidate.

As a candidate known for being “relentlessly on message,” “brilliantly bland” and — as he noted in his closing remarks, “aggressively normal” — Walker lived up to expectations as he shared the stage with the top 10 candidates in the Republican presidential field Thursday night in Cleveland. 

"He didn't really stand out, and he doesn't really need to," said Mike Wagner, a professor of journalism and mass communication and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wagner noted Walker is a top-tier candidate — consistently polling in the top three — and all he needed to do in the first debate of the 2016 election was survive.

Walker's message was familiar to those who have followed him closely. He highlighted his electoral record, having won three elections in four years in a typically blue state, and the battle he waged with labor unions shortly after he first took office in 2011. 

He also touted the fact that he cut off state funding for Planned Parenthood several years ago, long before the release of a controversial series of undercover videos that has reignited a push at the national level to cut the organization's federal funding.

Walker was also asked about his economic record and pressed for some specifics on foreign policy issues.

All the while, he stayed on message, never once straying from the narratives and phrases he's frequently employed in his campaign announcement speech and trips to early-vote states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Most voters still haven't heard those narratives, though, Wagner noted, adding that if Walker is sticking to it, it likely means he's found a message he believes is resonating.

In the scrum with nine other candidates, Walker lived up to his pledge to refrain from attacking fellow Republicans. While candidates like Donald Trump, Rand Paul and Chris Christie took shots at one another, Walker stayed out of the squabbles.

During one particularly heated exchange, Walker jumped in, stopping just short of scolding the others for their squabbling. He reminded them their focus should be not on fighting with each other, but on going after likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

"Everywhere in the world that Hillary Clinton touched is more messed up today than before," Walker said.

Brad Dayspring, a senior adviser for Unintimidated PAC, the super PAC supporting Walker, pointed out Walker's focus on Clinton in a tweet: "Notice: Walker the lone candidate repeatedly focused on contrast with Hillary Clinton."

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Walker seemed "fine," but added it was difficult for any one candidate to make a major impression.

Positioned in the center of the stage, Trump was in many ways the center of attention throughout the night. And with 10 candidates on stage, no one had enough time to make a strong impression.

"The good thing for Walker? No obvious mistakes. That's not nothing for a person who is new to a presidential debate stage," Kondik said.

Walker likely scored a few policy victories by answering foreign policy questions, Wagner said, but added that "activists in the Republican Party are looking for more meat on his foreign policy bones, and I'm not sure they saw that tonight."

As president, Walker said he would terminate the nuclear deal with Iran on his first day in office, reinstate sanctions and implement even stronger ones — then convince U.S. allies to do the same. Asked about aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Walker advocated for a "national security that puts steel in front of our enemies."

"I would send weapons to Ukraine," he said. "I would work with NATO to put forces on the eastern border of Poland and in the Baltic nations. I would reinstate and put back in place the missile defense system that we had in Poland and the Czech Republic."

The first question for Walker from Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly was about his staunch anti-abortion policies. As governor, Walker has signed into law some of the most aggressive abortion restrictions in the nation.

Walker reiterated he has "always been pro-life," and said he believes his position is one shared by many Americans.

He did not specifically address a question about the 20-week abortion ban he recently signed into law. Kelly asked: "Would you really let a woman die rather than have an abortion?"

Kelly noted that 83 percent of Americans support an exception for the life of the mother in those bills and asked whether his resistance, including to one of those exceptions, put his views outside of the mainstream.

"I think Walker performed well," said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who has worked for several presidential candidates including Walker. "Rubio is tough to beat on a debate stage, and I would say that Rubio did edge him, but I think Walker came a solid second. He looked up to the task and avoided certain traps he could have fallen into. The abortion question, and his response to it, will really help put to bed this chatter that's been bubbling up in conservative Christian circles that he flip-flopped to a pro-choice position during his re-election."

Mair noted that Walker was on the low end, in terms of time allocated to speak. 

"He did quite a bit with very little," she said.

But Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, argued the opposite.

"Scott Walker's always been willing to say anything to get elected, but tonight, he was willing to say nothing to get elected," Ross said.

A standout moment for Walker was his quip that "the Russian and Chinese governments know more about Hillary Clinton's email server than do the United States Congress," Wagner said.

Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, agreed the joke was "very clever."

But Schmidt continued, "Scott Walker had very little luster. It's hard to see why he's strong in the polls in several places."

Luster has never been one of Walker's selling points, though. The governor's public face is that of an everyday guy who likes Van Halen and ribs, gets excited about hearing Cheap Trick while getting a haircut and sings karaoke. The hottest thing in his Twitter feed are the ham-and-rolls he eats after church, before he watches football. His sons make fun of him for wearing white socks and denim shorts.

"I'm a guy with a wife and two kids and a Harley. One article called me 'aggressively normal,'" Walker said in his closing statement. "I ran for governor because I was worried about my kids' future. Then, we took on the big government union bosses and we won. They tried to recall me and we won. They targeted us again and we won. We balanced the budget, cut taxes and turned our state around with big, bold reforms. It wasn’t too late for Wisconsin, and it’s not too late for America."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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