Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and onetime executive of Lucent Technologies, walked away the clear winner in Wednesday night’s debate of the Republican presidential candidates on CNN.
During a three-hour match on a stage crowded by 11 candidates, Fiorina landed a thunderous rhetorical punch against Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Asked by CNN host Jake Tapper to respond to Trump’s comments to a Rolling Stone interviewer about her appearance (“Look at that face! … Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”) she was calm, and played classy hardball.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said with steely resolve.
Trump tried to recover, calling Fiorina a “beautiful woman,” but the damage was done.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) September 17, 2015
Fiorina had numerous other memorable moments. Asked if she would put the face of a historically important woman on any U.S. currency — a light question of no meaningful policy merit — she pounced with a frank and polished statement that deflated the entire conceit of the question, to such applause that CNN rated it among the top five most memorable moments of the entire night:
“I wouldn’t change the $10 bill or the $20 bill. I think honestly it’s a gesture. I don’t think it helps to change our history. What I would think is we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group. Women are the majority of this nation. We are half the potential of this nation. And this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.”
On the subject of Fiorina’s record at Hewlett-Packard and at Lucent Technologies, she took some damage. Trump repeated some comments he has made previously. “The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster.”
But a more solid thump came courtesy of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; in fact, it was the high point of his night. Addressing both Fiorina and Trump: “We don’t want to hear about your careers,” he said. “You’re both successful people: Congratulations! You know who’s not successful? The middle class in this country. … Let’s start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back and forth between you.”
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) September 17, 2015
There was a lot more to the action: When the subject turned to drug policy, Fiorina talked emotionally about the death of her stepdaughter in 2009 at the age of 35. She also found her voice of moral outrage — misinformed but outraged all the same — on the subject of a current Republican obsession: Cutting off federal funding for women’s health care clinics operated by the organization Planned Parenthood. She also hit other standard stations of the Republican cross: Clinton’s email server and the controversy about the 2013 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
It’s going to take a few days for pollsters to see if her performance registers with both Republican and undecided voters. It’s a pretty solid bet that her numbers will rise. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight noted that she was the only candidate who scored a solid A from media pundits in his Twitter feed.
The site also noted that she ranked third among the candidates who spoke the most behind Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the best interrupter of the pack. She ranked sixth as the most-attacked person on the debate stage behind President Obama, Trump, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Bush and Sen. Rand Paul. She also ranked third as the candidate asked the most questions by moderators.
So what happens next? People like me will type a lot of more words about her performance Wednesday night. Some very positive things have been written already.
About Fiorina’s response to the “face question”: “Trump, for once, seemed somewhat at a loss for words,” wrote John Cassidy for the New Yorker.
“Nearly a dozen men vying for the GOP presidential nomination reconnected with some or all of the reasons they are running for the White House. … And the lone woman … seemed to just about outdo them all,” wrote Janell Ross for the Washington Post.
“Time and time again, Carly Fiorina showed she could hold up against the rest,” wrote Erick Erickson for Fox News. “It was a very real introduction to the nation as a legitimate contender.”
He’s right. However spotty Carly Fiorina’s track record as a tech executive may have been, she’s now a serious contender in the presidential election. No longer a fringe candidate with a longshot vanity campaign, she has emerged as a significant force.
Let’s roll the tape forward a bit and imagine how this plays out. Assume for a moment that Republican voters tire of their early love in the polls for Trump and Dr. Ben Carson. (Trump may be peaking too early, and Carson was weak on the debate stage Wednesday.) That suggests that establishment Republicans like Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Christie might reassert themselves and regain strength.
But if money starts to flow into Fiorina’s campaign and Super PAC, and if she finishes in the top tier in the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 — two very big ifs — she stands a solid chance of landing on the ticket with the eventual nominee. Unless of course that nominee is Trump.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.