With a slim lead in the polls and just a week to go until the June 5 recall election, Scott Walker isn't taking any chances.
The Wisconsin governor is running under the radar in an attempt to freeze the race where it stands and limit the chances of a momentum-shifting mistake.
His engagements in public venues have tailed off. Retail events have given way to rallies with supporters at campaign offices. Walker's passive debate performance Friday, where he seemed more comfortable withstanding rhetorical blows from Democrat Tom Barrett than landing many of his own, offered more signs of his play-it-safe homestretch approach. The governor even passed on asking Barrett a direct question — usually a ripe opportunity to place an opponent on defense for a perceived weakness.
While his communications director told POLITICO he had no scheduled campaign events during the holiday weekend, the governor ended up popping up at several rallies with supporters. Walker spokeswoman Ciara Matthews described as many as seven different weekend stops as impromptu additions to the calendar.
In a phone interview with POLITICO on Monday, Walker pushed back on the implication he was playing it safe by sticking to carefully managed events among allies.
"On the weekends we go to [headquarters'] just to get out the volunteers and go by and try to thank them. Throughout the campaign, I've been at farms, I've been at factories, I've been at small businesses. Most of the factories I go to, it's all the employees, they don't distinguish who may or may not be a supporter," he said.
Walker's approach stands in contrast to Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who held open press campaign events at three weekend festivals and marched in a parade Monday. He accused Walker of trying to avoid scrutiny at a crucial juncture of a race entering its final week.
"There's no question he's trying to play out the clock and run out the clock," Barrett said during a campaign stop at a festival in West Allis, a suburb 15 minutes outside of Milwaukee.
"There are just so many questions that Gov. Walker refuses to answer. He refuses to answer questions about who's paying his legal defense fees for his criminal defense lawyers. He refuses to answer questions on where he goes on fundraising trips when he should've been in Madison working on legislation. He refuses to answer questions, such as, ‘Did he sign recall petitions against Sen. [Russ] Feingold and Sen. [Herb] Kohl?' The more questions he refuses to answer, the more people are asking themselves, why is he asking us to trust him?
Walker contended he's complied with every legal requirement in the so-called "John Doe" investigation Barrett alluded to, where his former aides are accused of conducting political work on government time. He said voters don't question his whereabouts because they often see him, even in far-flung areas of the state. And he claimed he simply doesn't remember whether he signed the recall petitions in question.
"I don't remember what may or may not have been put in front of me. I just don't remember. Do you remember everything you signed 15 years ago?" he said in the interview. "The mayor's just desperate."
On Saturday evening, as the Democrat toured a crowded chocolate festival in Republican-leaning Burlington, Wisc., he said Walker has become so polarizing it would be politically risky for him even to show up there.
"He could not come to this event because it'd be too controversial," he said. "Just look at his schedule in this campaign, every event is a controlled event. He's so divisive and he knows that and his handlers know that."
Seeking to reinforce a campaign narrative that points to him as a uniting figure, at several points Barrett reached out to Walker supporters who were mulling around the festival.
As he extended his hand to a reluctant man wearing a Scott Walker sticker, he pleaded with a grin, "C'mon, this is America."
"This is America," the man replied, as he extended his hand.
Later, Barrett stopped to ask two teenagers trailing him and wielding Walker signs where they went to school.
"I don't have the antipathy toward me that he has toward him," he said.
Walker made a stop in the same county Sunday, but the only evidence of his visit to a campaign headquarters in Racine was a picture his campaign tweeted out showing a packed room of volunteers and supporters.
While Matthews insisted the Racine stop was a last-minute jaunt, county party chairman Bill Folk told POLITICO he knew about it for at least two days.
"And that's an eternity at this stage in the campaign," Folk said in an interview, referring to the advanced notice.
Asked about Walker's presence at public events in his county, Folk replied, "We invite the governor to many events in our area, and he comes when he's able to."
Wisconsin Democrats like to note that Matthews, Walker's spokeswoman, formerly worked for Sharron Angle's 2010 Senate campaign in Nevada. That campaign once used a decoy to dodge a pack of journalists waiting for the GOP Senate candidate outside a campaign event and banned a local television station from their election night party for ambushing the candidate at the airport.
Kelly Steele, a Democratic strategist for the progressive group We Are Wisconsin, said even the two debates Walker agreed to — the final one set for Thursday night at Marquette University — were carefully selected to allow for the least amount of exposure possible.
"There's nothing subtle about refusing to debate until the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend and then, when pressed directly on the John Doe criminal corruption probe, fleeing the scene and throwing an ill-informed and non-responsive flack to the wolves. The fact the only other debate Walker has accepted is late Thursday night coinciding with the first pitch of the Brewers game is no more subtle," said Steele.