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Politics & Government

As Popularity Erodes, Walker Hopes To Reignite The Flame At Iowa State Fair

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No Republican presidential hopeful has more riding on Iowa than Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker lived there for a time as a child. He has a high profile as the governor of a neighboring state, and activists give him high marks for taking on unions. But after leading in polls in Iowa most of the year, his numbers are suddenly slumping. This morning, he spoke at the Iowa State Fair, trying to reignite the flame while jousting with hecklers. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Des Moines.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Well before he was an official candidate for president, Scott Walker was impressing Iowa Republicans. A fiery speech in January at a big candidate forum generated so much buzz that he became an early favorite in the state. Des Moines resident Dan Arthur, who's been watching candidates at the state fair this week, recalls that Walker took off...

DAN ARTHUR: Just like a bottle rocket, meteoric rise.

GONYEA: But then came the summertime and, well, listen to how Arthur describes Walker today.

ARTHUR: It's almost like his personality faded. He blanded himself off the map.

GONYEA: He blanded himself off the map.

ARTHUR: He has no spice.

GONYEA: And that assessment comes from a conservative Republican who once thought he might be looking at a winner in Scott Walker. Kim Lanc was at the fair today to check out Walker's speech. She says she likes him, but quickly adds that the rise of Donald Trump has really made it hard for Walker to break through.

KIM LANC: He didn't do, I don't think, very well in the debate. I mean, he didn't do bad. He just didn't do anything that was, you know, memorable.

GONYEA: Trump now leads Walker in polling in Iowa. And while Walker is still in the top tier of candidates here and nationally, his support has eroded. His backers haven't necessarily shifted to Trump, but possibly to other candidates on the rise, including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. Scott Walker arrived at the Iowa State Fairgrounds this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT WALKER: It's great to be at the fair. It's great to be in Iowa. We're going to keep coming back.

GONYEA: He stood on the small outdoor stage called the Soap Box and shouted into the microphone, talking of how he took on the unions and won.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALKER: The left doesn't want me to be your nominee because they know I don't just talk. I actually deliver on my promises. I will do that as your next president going forward.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: There were lots of supporters in the crowd wearing Walker T-shirts and waving campaign signs. But there were also some union activists, many from Wisconsin, who booed and jeered as Walker spoke of his record as governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALKER: We need a president who will stand up just like Ronald Reagan did, a governor...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, Scott, you're a better governor than carny.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're nothing. You ain't standing up; you're lying.

GONYEA: Walker responded to the shouts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALKER: Unintimidated - I am not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there. I will fight for the American people over and over and over and over again. You want someone who's tested? I'm right here. You can see it.

GONYEA: It was a tone similar to the speeches Walker gave many months ago that created the initial buzz around his candidacy. Walker is reluctant to even talk about Donald Trump. He'd rather discuss his own proposals and ideas. Still, in a media scrum after his speech, he did weigh in on why Trump seems to be resonating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALKER: I think the reason why you see not just one candidate, but a couple of candidates moving in the polls who are not elected to any position is really a matter of a protest. I talk to Americans all across this country who say I may not end up voting for this candidate, but I'm going to say in the polls that I'm for them because I'm tired of politicians in Washington not listening to me.

GONYEA: The trick for Walker is to get those voters who say nobody is listening to them to again hear him amid an increasingly noisy campaign. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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