Fiorina’s Strong Debate Performance Lands Her in Second Place
Policy + Politics

Fiorina’s Strong Debate Performance Lands Her in Second Place

REUTERS/Chris Keane

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has rocketed to the top tier of GOP presidential candidates on the strength of her performance in last Wednesday night’s Republican debate -- a three hour affair in which she upbraided frontrunner Donald Trump and upstaged many of the other candidates.

Fiorina received rock-star attention at a Republican leadership retreat over the weekend on tony Mackinac Island in Michigan, and her sudden climb to near the top of the political heap was confirmed on Sunday in a new national CNN/ORC poll.

Related: For Fiorina, the Real Test Starts Now

Fiorina  parlayed a strong performance in a GOP undercard debate of lesser candidates August 6 into a spot on the stage at Wednesday night’s main event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California – and just about everyone agrees she made the most of it.

  • She shamed Trump for his boorish behavior in criticizing her physical appearance.

  • She was well armed with proposals for beefing up the U.S. military.

  • She won the audience’s sympathy with a reminder of her stepdaughter’s fatal struggle with drugs.

  • She offered the most stirring conservative argument for defunding Planned Parenthood in a debate broadcast nationally by CNN that drew 23 million viewers.

According to the CNN/ORC survey, the billionaire Trump remains the party’s frontrunner with the support of 24 percent of likely Republican voters, although his support dipped by eight percentage points from an earlier poll. Fiorina placed second with 15 percent of the vote – achieving an impressive 12-percent point gain from early September.

That puts her just ahead of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who scored 14 percent – a 19-point decline from his previous showing. During an appearance today on NBC’s Meet the Press,  Carson said that a presidential candidate’s religious faith matters a great deal, and that he would not support a Muslim as president.

Related: Fiorina Scores Well on Social Media in Face-off With Trump

“I would not advocate that we put a Muslin in charge of this nation,” Carson told moderator Chuck Todd. “I absolutely would not agree with that.”

While there has been a difference of opinion on who delivered the strongest performances during the Wednesday night debate, the CNN’s poll shows that Republicans by a margin of 52 percent to 31 percent believe Fiorina beat the bellicose, combative Trump. 

Trump bragged that he had won the debate and had cited his continued strong showing in other national and statewide polls as a validation for his controversial stands, including his call for construction of a wall along the U.S. Mexico border and the mass deportation of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country.

But his performance Wednesday night was uneven and underwhelming. And  some of his Republican opponents and media critics complain that much of what he has to say is vacuous or devoid of any substance – even as the CNN poll shows that Trump led the field on the question of which GOP candidate would best handle the economy, immigration and foreign policy.

When pressed today during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program to explain how as president he would prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from escalating Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Trump said he would do so by commanding the respect of Putin and do a better job of communicating with him.

Related: Trump Slights Rival Fiorina's Looks: 'Look at That Face'

“He [Putin] has no respect for our country and our leadership at this moment,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “And frankly, he’s doing things that are very aggressive. And the reason he’s doing them is because he doesn’t have respect.”

Fiorina, by contrast, has been sharply focused and specific in many of her responses – including her ideas for bolstering the U.S. military in response to Russia’s growing threat. While Trump has said he would create a military so strong that “nobody would mess with us,” Fiorina cited specific goals for beefing up the Army and the Marine Corps.

“We need to reform the Department of Defense, we need as well to invest in our military technology, and we need to care for our veterans so 307,000 aren’t dying waiting for health care,” Fiorina said during the debate. She proposed that the steadily shrinking Army force be bolstered to 50 combat brigades, while the Marine Corps would have 36 battalions instead of the 24 currently projected. And she is in favor of the Navy’s plan to increase from 273 to 300 deployable warships within the next ten years, a build-up that Secretary Ray Mabus has deemed vital to this country’s security and economy, according to Stars and Stripes.

Related: Carly Fiorina’s Real Record at HP: Is She Presidential Material?

In her interview today with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, Fiorina described her debate performance as a pivotal moment. “It’s obviously a very important moment because now more people know who I am. And we know – based on what’s happened before this debate—that as people come to know me and understand who I am and what I’ve done and mostly importantly what I will do, they tend to support me.”

As the only woman in the 16-member GOP presidential field, Fiorina insists she is the only candidate  who can draw large numbers of women to support the party next year and the one  best able to challenge Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Still, she also brings a considerable amount of political baggage to the effort. Her success last week already is drawing attention to Hewlett-Packard’s massive employee layoffs and huge financial losses while she headed the company, her loss to Democrat Barbara Boxer in the 2010 California Senate race, and even the accuracy of her public statements about the Planned Parenthood controversy and other issues.

Fiorina says she expects renewed criticism of her record and career and is more than prepared to respond.

“I led Hewlett-Packard during a very difficult time, and many people said unkind things,” she told Fox News. “I battled cancer, I buried a child. When you go through things like that, you really have a perspective.”