When other candidates stammered, Carly Fiorina was eloquent. When they talked in circles, she stayed on topic. When they made no sense, she argued her points coherently. And when the bell rang, alerting her that she had run out of time, she calmly took however long she damn well pleased to finish answering the question, and no one told her to stop.
Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, clearly delivered the breakout performance of Thursday’s first primary debate, coming across rather a lot like a front-runner despite her dismal polling, which kept her from the main event, and despite the fact that earlier in the day, she suffered a public embarrassment at the hands of a rival campaign.
An hour before the debate started, Rand Paul aide Sergio Gor tweeted out a photo of a piece of paper he found in a hotel printer. He teased his followers and asked them to guess whose statement he had found. At the end of the debate a little over two hours later, Fiorina gave that closing statement word-for-word.
It didn’t seem to shake Fiorina one bit.
Her comments ranged from cliché—“Most importantly, I think I understand leadership”—to the garbled—“We need to tear down cyber walls not on a mass basis, but on a targeted basis”—to, at least regarding Donald Trump, cutting. When moderator Martha MacCallum asked about the bombastic ex-reality TV star’s recent ascent in the polls, she took her first big swipe at a fellow Republican.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” she said dryly, looking around the stage at her fellow contenders. “Did any of you guys get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn’t.”
“Maybe it’s because I didn’t give money to the [Clinton] Foundation or donate money to his wife’s Senate campaign,” she continued. (“They’re friends,” she told reporters after the event was over. “They’re friends! Bill Clinton’s said that, Hillary Clinton’s said that. They’re friends! So, maybe they were talking as friends. I don’t know.”)
Then she continued, tearing into his frequent flip-flops on policies ranging from immigration to abortion.
Fiorina has played it nice thus far in the race—too nice. Tonight, that changed. And by tying the GOP front-runner to Democrats’ front-runner, she made a jab that other Republicans have been too nervous to deliver.
Others noticed her performance. Governor Rick Perry, during the debate, gave her a rare compliment, saying the nuclear deal with Iran would have been better if she had negotiated for it rather than Secretary of State John Kerry. He isn’t the only prominent politico whose admiration Fiorina secured; immediately after the debate, Chris Wallace and George Will both gave her rave reviews.
Fiorina’s performance stood out on its own, but the lackluster competition made her look even better. From Rick Perry calling the former president “Ronald Raven” to Rick Santorum comparing the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage to the Dred Scott decision to Lindsey Graham using just about every question to talk about sending troops to Iraq, the other standouts distinguished themselves for largely the wrong reasons.
“If you look at state poll after state poll after state poll, I am in the top 10,” a euphoric Fiorina insisted to reporters after the debate was over.
“We have statewide primaries in this country. I didn’t complain about the rules, but, if you’re gonna pick national polls, what you’re really mentioning is name-ID, and I have the lowest name-ID, still—although, maybe it got better tonight!—still, of any candidate running. So I have to keep introducing myself to the American people. I’m working as hard as I can work, a lot harder than a lot of other folks, according to many observers, and I’m gonna keep working.”
Fiorina’s insistence that statewide polls weren’t given enough consideration in the decision-making process for the debates, coupled with her star-turn, left some wondering if she was subtly lobbying for the rules to be changed next time around.
“Look, I’m not in charge of the rules for the next debate, OK? And I don’t know what will come. But what I know is this: If you look at where primaries are held, week, by week, by week—if people know who I am they like who I am. That’s what the polls say week, by week, by week. And that’s how you win elections.”
“I would have loved to have spent more time talking about the economy. I actually wasn’t asked a question about the economy at all! And certainly I have a lot of experience and a lot to say about that.”
A reporter in the scrum circling Fiorina shouted over the noise, “I have good news for you!” With a laugh, she said, “You have good news for me! OK!” Since the debate, he told her, she was being searched on Google so much that she rivaled Donald Trump. She smiled confidently. “Well, there ya go.”
Asked if she thought she won the debate, Fiorina smiled.
“Oh, I’ll let others decide that.”