Gov. Scott Walker cast himself as “aggressively normal” in the first Republican presidential debate Thursday night, touting changes he enacted in Wisconsin while standing clear of his GOP rivals, who clashed early and often.
In his first extended exposure to millions of viewers, Walker scarcely heeded his Republican rivals, including businessman Donald Trump.
Walker instead took repeated aim at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, blasting her foreign-policy views and linking her to President Barack Obama during the Fox News debate in Cleveland.
“Everywhere in the world that Hillary Clinton touched is more messed up today than before,” Walker said.
Walker also defended his staunch anti-abortion views and said he “listened to the American people” when he reversed his stance on immigration.
Walker’s low-key approach contrasted with other Republicans who traded barbs in the debate, including Trump, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
He offered a workmanlike performance, neither memorable nor problematic. In a nod to his evangelical faith — and perhaps the heavy makeup of religious conservatives in Iowa, the first nominating state — Walker said that his faith informs his approach to leadership.
“I’m certainly an imperfect man, and it’s only through the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed for my sins,” Walker said.
Marquette University Law School pollster Charles Franklin said Walker was “very controlled,” received questions that he’s been asked before, notably invoked Clinton more than other candidates and didn’t always use up the full amount of time to answer questions.
“The impression I got from it was that his answers were shorter than what most of the other candidates did,” Franklin said. “It remains to be seen whether that leaves other people with the impression that he kind of faded into the background, or whether those controlled answers were exactly what he wanted.”
As expected, Walker also made his governorship and his three election victories in the state a centerpiece of his argument for why he should be the GOP nominee.
“It wasn’t too late for Wisconsin, and it’s not too late for America,” Walker said.
Walker was near center stage for the debate — the first of nine sanctioned by the Republican National Committee — flanked by Trump and retired surgeon Ben Carson. The other candidates were Paul, Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The participants were picked based on the top 10 candidates in an average of five national polls.
But far from dominating the debate, Walker often strayed from the limelight. He held his fire against other Republicans, choosing to save his barbs for Clinton and Obama. Walker had signaled before the debate that he didn’t want to lock horns with Trump or other GOP candidates.
Tim Hagle, political science professor at the University of Iowa, said Walker was deft in his handling of questions on foreign policy.
“That’s usually a weakness of governors and he was good on those,” Hagle said. “I thought Walker did well for himself.”
Walker was asked during the debate about his opposition to abortion and whether he thinks a mother should be allowed to die if her pregnancy endangers her life.
Walker responded by defending his staunch anti-abortion stance opposing abortion without exceptions — including to save the life of the mother — saying it’s within the U.S. mainstream. He noted his effort as Wisconsin governor to defund Planned Parenthood while ripping Clinton’s pro-choice position.
Walker didn’t directly answer the question posed by Fox News personality Megyn Kelly: Would he really let a woman die rather than allow her to have an abortion?
Liberal group One Wisconsin Now said Walker’s targeting of Planned Parenthood had dire consequences. The group said in a statement that Walker’s defunding of Planned Parenthood forced the closure of rural health centers and cut access to health services such as cancer screenings and birth control.
Walker has said during his presidential campaign that he opposes “amnesty” for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. But as recently as 2013, Walker said he supported creating a path to citizenship for such immigrants.
Walker is widely considered a top-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, placing near the front of the 17-candidate pack in many polls.
But for many, Thursday’s debate was the first opportunity to see and hear the second-term governor speak at length. Walker’s challenge was to show he’s worthy of the early momentum behind his campaign, political and debate experts said.
The hype surrounding Walker meant “he’s got a little more to prove than other folks,” Hagle said before the debate.
“He needs to demonstrate that he is sufficiently knowledgeable and able to articulate his positions,” Hagle said. “It’s not like he has to come out swinging or hit a home run. He just has to show solid competence on the issues and not say something he has to walk back later.”
A debate “undercard” concluded at 6 p.m. Thursday for candidates who didn’t qualify for the main event. They were former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The RNC plans to hold a presidential debate in Wisconsin in November, moderated by FOX Business. Other details of that event have yet to be announced.
Reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.