Before a friendly crowd of retirees in swampy Indian Land, S.C., Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker decided to tempt Donald Trump’s lawyers. “With your help we can make this country great again,” he told the roughly 200 attendees who sat on lawn chairs Aug. 24 under a shaded pavilion. The words, which he repeated twice, echoed Trump’s slogan “Make America great again,” which the real estate mogul has marketed on hats and trademarked to keep his rivals from using it.
But for Walker, the risk was worth taking. Trump has been eating away at Walker’s poll numbers and tantalizing his fundraisers and supporters. Walker built his campaign on a melodramatic retelling of his courageous battles against the Wisconsin public-sector unions, but as Trump has risen, bolder and brasher than anyone around him, the governor has been overshadowed.
Now Walker is trying to turn the page. The new strategy: show Republicans that he can out-Trump Trump without losing himself.
In a donor call Aug. 18, Walker opened up to his supporters about his struggles. After a cautious performance in the inaugural GOP debate, he promised he’d show more energy and “urgency” on the stump.
Since then, he has pared back his everyman shtick, putting on a tie more often and dropping his tales about shopping for discount clothes at Kohl’s. Rather than run from confrontation, as he often does with reporters, he engaged in a heated back-and-forth with a protester at the Iowa State Fair. “Republicans have been in charge of both houses of Congress since January, and there still isn’t a bill on the President’s desk to repeal Obamacare,” he said, sharpening his attacks on his own party.
Walker has also pivoted to echo Trump’s focus on China. As the stock market went tumbling in late August, he blamed China’s devaluation of its currency, going so far as to call on President Obama to show “backbone” and disinvite Chinese President Xi Jinping from September’s planned state visit.
The transition has not been seamless. On Aug. 17 he said he would support revising the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to scale back birthright citizenship–a radical idea reintroduced into the political bloodstream by Trump. Hours later, Walker backtracked, calling the discussion a distraction from the issue of border security while denying he’d shifted his position.
Walker denies that he is taking his cues from Trump. “Just because the media covers some candidates more than others doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t talking about things,” he said. It was just the sort of thing Trump would say.
–ZEKE J. MILLER/ANDERSON, S.C.
This appears in the September 07, 2015 issue of TIME.
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