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How the season of Trump changed Scott Walker

MANCHESTER, N.H.—In the weeks since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called himself "aggressively normal" during the first 2016 Republican presidential debate, his poll ratings have gone in the wrong direction.

Now he's emphasizing the "aggressive" part.

He says Hillary Clinton's handling of email as secretary of state should "disqualify her from being president of the United States."

He says Republican rival John Kasich's decision to expand Medicaid as governor of Ohio is "precisely what's wrong with the federal government."

He calls Marco Rubio's assertion that repealing Obamacare is impossible under President Barack Obama "procedural talk"—and aims more fire at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"The biggest people I blame are the leaders," Walker said in an interview here in New Hampshire, where he currently languishes in fifth place in the polls. "Republican leaders who told us during the campaign, 'You want to repeal Obamacare? We've got to have a Republican Senate.'

"The American people—me included—are frustrated, say 'Well, where's the action?'" To make things happen as president, Walker added, he'd like a Republican-controlled Senate to scrap historic filibuster rules so that an Obamacare repeal and other legislative priorities could pass with a simple majority vote. That wouldn't require any Democratic cooperation at all.

Scott Walker speaking to John Harwood
Mary Stevens | CNBC
Scott Walker speaking to John Harwood

Donald Trump's rise this summer has scrambled the communications plans for all Republican candidates. But Walker, who had planned to run as the mainstream conservative alternative to establishment favorite Jeb Bush, has suffered conspicuous damage.

The Wisconsin governor had already moved to the right on immigration, renouncing his prior support for a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. But the bombastic Trump has gone much further, vowing to deport all of them and end the longstanding American policy of granting automatic citizenship to anyone born on the nation's soil.

After seeming to echo Trump on birthright citizenship, he said in the interview he wasn't taking any stance on the issue until the U.S. government secures its borders. That attracted sharp criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.

Walker established his bona fides with conservatives after winning the Wisconsin governorship in 2010, battling public employee unions over bargaining rights and benefits, and surviving both recall and re-election campaigns. He aims to convert that record into victory in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and a surge of momentum toward the nomination.

A political disciple of Ronald Reagan, he calls Reagan's 1986 reform setting a top personal income tax rate of 28 percent a model for his own forthcoming tax proposal. He vows to repeal President Obama's national health program and overhaul Social Security and Medicare for those of his generation (he's 47) and younger.

His Obamacare repeal plan calls for converting Medicaid from an open-ended entitlement to grants to states, which could set their own eligibility requirements. Following the same approach, he would also turn over to states existing federal programs on transportation, education and environmental protection.

"I actually read the Constitution," he explained. "It says the federal government (is) narrowly defined in its responsibilities."

Services provided and funded at the state leveled, he said, are "more effective, more efficient and more accountable."

Accountability failures by traditional politicians have become a dominant theme of the Trump-driven campaign so far. Walker's biography—which includes running for office since his early 20s—is not ideally suited for that mood.

But he insists he can overcome it.

"A career politician, in my mind, is somebody who's been in Congress for 25 years," he said, calling himself a "public servant" instead.

Then he added: "I think most people don't care one way or the other as long as it's somebody who gets the job done. The biggest problem most Americans have is that they don't see any results out of Washington.

"I think people want a fighter who can win, get the results," he concluded. And in Wisconsin, "I fought, I won, I got results, and I did it without violating my conservative principles."