SIMI VALLEY, California – Scott Walker was unable to talk much Wednesday night at the second Republican presidential debate, and the Wisconsin governor’s campaign is not thrilled about it.
During the lengthy three-hour debate, Walker received only two direct questions, and he spoke less than any other candidate. The governor clocked in at 8 minutes 29 seconds, less than half of real-estate magnate Donald Trump’s 18 minutes. He didn’t get a direct question until almost 90 minutes into the debate.
“Isn’t that amazing?” he said afterward. “It is what it is.”
Walker, needing a spry performance after a sleepy first debate that contributed to his slide in polls, opened with a bang. In a fiery exchange with the front-running Trump, Walker said the country didn’t need an “apprentice” in the White House because it already had one.
But he largely faded from view after that memorable moment. And the consensus among his surrogates was that he didn’t get enough time to build more momentum.
“He didn’t get in an exchange that he lost, and that’s why we thought it was effective,” former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Missouri), who is advising Walker’s team on foreign policy and national security, told Business Insider. “Obviously we would’ve liked him to have had more time.”
Walker was more measured in his criticism about his lack of speaking time. He instead scrutinized CNN’s process, which he said was too focused on direct, ad hominem attacks rather than substance and policy.
“It’s not just the time you get – it’s what you do with it,” Walker said in response to a question from Business Insider outside the spin room. “I hope people see the clear contrast.
“A good chunk of the time tonight seemed to be spent with people responding to attacks on each other, as opposed to talking about substance.”
But some political analysts said Walker failed to grab some potential buzzworthy moments by the horns.
“It was an opportunity he didn’t grab as much of as he could have,” former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele said. “He took advantage of certain moments, but he didn’t grab as much of them as he could have.”
Indeed, according to data from Google Trends, the third- and fourth-most-asked questions about Walker at one point during the debate were, “What happened to Scott Walker?” and “Where is Scott Walker?” Walker was the least mentioned candidate on Twitter. He lagged behind most other candidates on Facebook as well.
It’s all part of a rather stunning fall for a governor who was seen as an early favorite to capture his party’s nomination. Over the past month, Walker has seen the largest drop in poll standing among his Republican rivals. And he has crumbled in the first-caucus state of Iowa, which was seen as crucial to his chances of capturing the GOP nomination.
“I think Walker of all people is in the most make-or-break moment,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told Business Insider before the debate.
“If he doesn’t have a stand-out performance, the money is going to dry up and start heading to people like Kasich or Rubio,” he added, referring to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
For its part, his campaign still seems optimistic, dismissing the poll plunge as temporary. One adviser to Walker took another veiled shot at Trump while predicting Walker would be at the top in the end.
“People are going to get serious about selecting the president of the United States in December, January, February,” Walker campaign adviser Robert O’Brien said Wednesday night after the debate. “Iowa voters – I’ve been through this – take their decision very seriously, so do voters in New Hampshire. We have a fully developed set of policy proposals that the American people will pick who they want to be president, not who they want to watch on a TV show or flirt with in a poll.”
Talent, the foreign-policy adviser to Walker, added: “I don’t know whether Scott’s going to win or not, but I know this thing is not over. The spring and the summer – they’re sampling different ones. They’re window-shopping.”