Walker hits bump in ’16 race

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has hit a bump in the presidential race as new candidates have crowded the field, and his national poll numbers have faltered.

He was seen as an early favorite to win the Iowa caucuses after taking the race by storm with a well-received speech in January at GOP Rep. Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit. 

Since then, some air has come out of the Walker balloon.

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A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday still shows him with a big lead in the Hawkeye State, with 21 percent support. He leads Rubio, the next closest candidate, by 8 percentage points.

But Walker’s support has fallen in Iowa. In a Quinnipiac poll from February, Walker had taken 25 percent support and led the next closest candidate by 12 percentage points.

Nationally, Walker’s support peaked at 17.3 percent on April 1 and dropped to 12.3 percent on Wednesday, according to the 

RealClearPolitics average of polls.

He’s been overtaken by two candidates seeking to appeal to establishment-minded Republicans.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush now leads the field at 15.5 percent support, followed by Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGroups unendorse Grayson after domestic violence allegations Trump postpones Hispanic roundtable Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE (Fla.) at 14.3 percent.

GOP pollsters say Walker, who has not formally entered the race, excited Republicans earlier this year with his visit to Iowa. But they argue his support in polls could be soft.

“Walker had that speech that was very well received, and people wanted to hear

 more, but these are people who are just leaning in his direction right now,” said GOP pollster David Winston. “The challenge is going to be in getting these people to commit.”

A source close to the Walker campaign argued that the Wisconsin governor has shown he has “staying power” in Iowa. The source said Walker had maintained relatively steady support and that he had weathered the barrage of presidential announcements by Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzAttacking Trump for the few sensible things he says is bad strategy The Trail 2016: One large crack in the glass ceiling Castro looking at Cruz challenge MORE (Texas), Rubio and Paul, all of whom got a boost from their campaign launches.

Still, it is clear Walker faces a challenge in the state, where Rubio and Cruz have made considerable gains on him.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s entrance into the race on Tuesday is a new case of bad news for the Wisconsin governor. Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 and will compete with Walker, Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson for social conservative votes.

Some Republicans in the state believe Walker’s base of support among social conservatives in the state is soft and driven largely by the buzz he’s generated as an exciting new face for the party — something that can vanish as quickly as it arrived. 

Huckabee, they say, has far more durable support among the socially conservative base that propelled him to victory in 2008.

“Walker’s high numbers indicate the level of interest that there is in him in Iowa right now,” said former Iowa Republican Party political director Craig Robinson. “Huckabee’s numbers are made up of hardcore supporters that he can build off of and grow.” 

Cruz, meanwhile, has planted himself in the state and will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as the GOP insurgent that the base sends to victory.

Huckabee and Cruz both launched their campaigns with explicit appeals to social conservatives and evangelicals, who make up an estimated 40 percent of Iowa GOP caucus-goers.

Political watchers in Iowa say Walker needs to make a similarly bold play if he hopes to make the most of his successful early run in the polls.

“Walker needs to come here and seize that faith-based coalition of voters, or else Huckabee is going to walk away with them,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University.

Walker also has national considerations, and many believe he could unite grassroots conservatives with the GOP establishment in a way Huckabee, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), another presidential contender, cannot.

In terms of winning support from the GOP establishment, Bush and Rubio are Walker’s two biggest threats.

The possibility that the Wisconsin Republican could appeal to both wings of the Republican Party is what makes him a formidable candidate. But it’s a balancing act he’s struggled with in the early going.

He has been criticized for changing positions on ethanol subsidies and immigration, for comparing Wisconsin union demonstrators to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and for flubbing questions on evolution and the president’s patriotism.

“He’s a tweener, and it’s great to have that broad appeal,” said Robinson. “But people also thought [former Minnesota Gov. Tim] Pawlenty could manage that, and the problem is, if you’re not enough of one thing, you’re stuck in the middle and could see your appeal fade as people gravitate towards their more natural home.”

Still, Walker’s spike in the polls has been dramatic and has endured for months. Nobody expected he or any of the candidates would go wire-to-wire in such a dense field, and these kinds of surges and pullbacks are typical, especially in the early stages of a campaign cycle.

“Some people have better starting points than others, but they all face the same challenge,” Winston said. “Turning that starting point into a majority coalition.”