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Walker Iowa

By playing it safe in last week's GOP debate, Gov. Scott Walker may not have done himself any favors in the polls, analysts say.

NATI HARNIK — Associated Press

Early returns are in, and it appears the first presidential debate was a setback for Gov. Scott Walker nationally and in Iowa, a state widely regarded as crucial to his chances.

Walker — who topped most polls of Republican presidential candidates in Iowa, the first presidential state, throughout 2015 — has ceded the top spot there to businessman Donald Trump, a recent batch of polling shows.

Walker also faltered in polls conducted in other states after the first Republican debate in Cleveland last week.

An analysis by the website names Walker the biggest debate loser among the GOP candidates, based on an analysis of seven pre- and post-debate polls of the national race and in Iowa and New Hampshire. The analysis shows Walker is the only candidate whose support slipped after the debate in all seven polls.

Walker created high expectations for his candidacy in January with a widely lauded showing at the Iowa Freedom Summit, said Doug Gross, a longtime Republican strategist in Iowa who isn’t currently supporting any presidential candidate.

Seven months later, Gross said, Walker is struggling to meet the high benchmark he established then. The debate didn’t help, Gross added.

Walker “didn’t stand out during the debate,” Gross said. “He’s got to reinject some energy into his campaign in Iowa.”

The changing state of the race may be causing Walker — who, as an early front-runner, initially avoided locking horns with other candidates — to sharpen his critiques of Trump.

On Monday, he described Trump’s campaign as “like watching a car accident.” Then on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported Walker took Trump to task for his frequent insults directed at women.

“I will always be respectful to people, and I will never use the kind of language you’ve heard out of him,” Walker said of Trump.

The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to inquiries about Walker’s remarks.

Walker has spent considerable time and resources in Iowa, and his campaign has long acknowledged it must perform well in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. A super PAC supporting Walker announced earlier this month that it’s plunking down at least $7 million for ads in Iowa between now and the caucuses.

Walker’s campaign spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, noted that he recently announced a leadership team in Iowa that includes more than one-third of the Republicans in the Iowa Senate, as well as other current and former elected officials, business leaders and party activists.

“Gov. Walker continues to connect with voters in Iowa,” Strong said.

But at least four recent polls — three of which were conducted after last week’s debate — show Walker now trailing Trump in Iowa.

Two of the post-debate polls show Walker running second in Iowa with 12 percent support — down significantly from polls conducted earlier this year, some of which pegged his support at twice that level.

A CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday showed Walker running third in Iowa, at 9 percent, with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson surging into second place behind Trump.

The post-debate polls also show former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina gaining ground in Iowa and nationally.

Gross said he remains skeptical that Trump will be able to convert his early surge into a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses.

Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said Trump is now dominating the race in Iowa, as he is nationally. Larimer said he’s not surprised Walker regressed somewhat in Iowa after his initial surge in early 2015.

“The surprise is the staying power of Trump — and that he’s probably sucking up some of Walker’s support,” Larimer said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.