Heading into the first Republican primary debate, Gov. Scott Walker's mantra was "relax." A little more than a month later, he has a new plan for the candidates' second scrum: "Be aggressive."
The difference between Aug. 6 and Sept. 16 is a nosedive in the polls. In the August Fox News debate, Walker joined former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and real estate mogul Donald Trump in the center of the stage, showcasing the top three candidates.
In the days leading up to Wednesday's CNN debate, Walker's national poll numbers had plummeted to 3 percent.
Walker has said he plans to exhibit the same "passion" in the debate that he demonstrated in his 2012 recall election victory.
"These other guys are interesting right now but in the end I think people are going to come back to proven results," Walker told Fox News.
Conventional wisdom heading into the Fox News debate held that a candidate like Walker didn't need to stand out, he just had to survive an evening on stage with Trump.
Political analysts and strategists agreed then that, for better or worse, real estate mogul Donald Trump would steal the show. The bombastic candidate had 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.
But while establishment candidates like Walker have seen their support dwindle since that debate, 'outsiders' like trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have continued to rise.
"There's no question that August was a brutal month for the Walker campaign, but while the polling numbers have changed since the last debate, the facts here in Wisconsin have not," said Brian Fraley, a former Republican operative who now owns the Brookfield consulting firm Edge Messaging. "Gov. Walker's track record of walking the walk is his greatest asset and something he needs to get back to. But, let's be clear, this isn't a debate. It's an 11-person televised interview, and one that will center on the novelty candidate-turned front runner."
There's no doubt Trump has sucked up most of the media oxygen, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics — but there's something else amiss for Walker.
"He has faded in Iowa and is also fading nationally. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint his problems, but he has not generated much coverage and the coverage he has gotten has been of small contradictions in his responses to questions," Kondik said. "He obviously didn’t make a splash in the first debate."
Walker has a fine needle to thread.
He shouldn't be defensive, Fraley said, but he also can't stand around taking criticism and waiting his turn. The governor should focus his time on presenting himself as the only outside-the-beltway candidate with "such an impressive proven public policy track record."
"Gov. Walker needs to show genuine passion for his agenda and explain to voters that he does more than just talk about how screwed up Washington is. He has a track record as a governor, county executive and lawmaker that appeals to Republicans who favor limited government, lower taxes and bringing power from D.C. back to the states," Fraley said.
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said Walker needs to take on Trump, but since he's "kind of a shy, goofy guy," it would seem strange if he "suddenly turns into a Doberman Pinscher."
Walker has returned to his comfort zone in the days leading up to the debate, pledging to do battle with federal employee unions in a plan released Monday.
As president, Walker said he would eliminate federal employee unions and the National Labor Relations Board, and would make every state a right-to-work state. Much of his plan draws on his signature Act 10 legislation, which curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin and sparked massive protests at the state Capitol.
But Schmidt recalls a recent conversation he had with an Iowa man whose father had worked in a packing plant making $22 an hour. When the plant was sold, wages were cut. The man seemed angry at the union-bashing he'd seen from candidates, Schmidt said, adding that in other aspects, he seemed like a potential Walker voter.
"I think he's pitching to the owners of meat packing plants and not the former workers or kids of workers, which is a losing idea," Schmidt said.
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.
Walker's trouble, Schmidt said, is that he hasn't been able to "close the deal." He's failed to distinguish himself as the most faith-based candidate or the most effective governor in the race, Schmidt said.
"Tonight Walker will compare himself to Ronald Reagan, which is almost as outlandish as his comparisons of workers to terrorists," said Democratic National Committee spokesman TJ Helmstetter. "For starters, Reagan signed a law giving 3 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, while Scott Walker’s Trump-like immigration policy calls for undocumented immigrants to ‘return to country of origin and get in line.’ Scott Walker is polarizing, bad for the middle class, and has a horrendous economic record in Wisconsin — and despite his best efforts, that will be clear tonight."
Walker needs to "stand out in a good way" on Wednesday to keep small-dollar donations flowing, Fraley said.
However, he added, "unlike, say, Govs. Jindal and Christie, Walker's various entities have the resources to keep him in this race for the long haul no matter what happens in the next few weeks."
Kondik agreed that in order to stay viable in the eyes of the media, donors and others, Walker needs to do something to change the narrative and numbers tied to his campaign.
"If Walker doesn’t turn things around he might be in danger of becoming a forgotten man in this field," Kondik said. "Fundraising could dry up and his campaign could enter a death spiral. The difficult thing for Walker is that he doesn’t have control of his own destiny — he is just being overshadowed by Trump, Carson and others, and they may outlast him in this race."
But Fraley said no one should count Walker out yet.
Based on Walker's policy achievements and war chest, Fraley predicts the governor will be one of the last three or four candidates standing in the race, regardless of what happens Wednesday or between now and the Iowa caucuses.
"But I have to say I love all the premature celebration from the left in Wisconsin and the leaders of organized labor across the country," he added. "This isn't the first time in his life that Scott Walker has been underestimated, after all."