On a crowded stage of 11 candidates at Wednesday night’s marathon GOP presidential debate, including current and former governors, sitting senators and a bombastic billionaire business mogul, it was a political novice and the only woman among the contenders who delivered a breakout performance.
A month ago, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was polling so low among Republican primary voters that she was not included on the main stage at the first prime-time GOP candidates’ debate, on Fox News. On Wednesday night, not only was she elevated to prime time, but she also impressed audiences by adeptly deflating GOP front-runner Donald Trump and delivering poised, detailed answers on a variety of topics.
“I went into this debate understanding that half the people watching had never heard my name and didn’t know I was running for president, so it was an really important opportunity to continue introduce myself to the American people,” Fiorina said Thursday on an interview with MSNBC. “I was satisfied that I said what I needed to say last night.”
“I hope what people saw last night is that I can win this job and I can do this job,” she added.
Some Republicans seem particularly excited by the prospect that Fiorina, whether she wins or loses the nomination, may help bridge the GOP’s gap with women, a demographic the party has struggled to attract as Democrats have persistently claimed that Republicans are waging a war on women.
Fiorina made perhaps the most emotional and memorable comments about whether it was worth shutting down the government over federal funding for Planned Parenthood — a conundrum with which Republican congressional leaders are grappling after a series of damaging videos were released showing the organization officials discussing fetal tissue donations.
“I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” she said. “This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”
Asked what she made of Trump’s comments to a Rolling Stone reporter about her that he couldn’t imagine anyone with “that face” being president, Fiorina answered coolly, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
But now with the spotlight focused firmly on her, Fiorina’s campaign is also bound to confront new challenges and increased scrutiny of her record.
Although she has touted her secretary-to-CEO personal story, emphasizing her rise from the bottom rung of the ladder at small real estate firm to the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, her tenure atop the information technology giant for six years was troubled. She oversaw the company at a time of financial turmoil in Silicon Valley and presided over the layoffs of tens of thousands of employees — a move she has defended as necessary for the long-term growth of the company. By 2005, when she was fired by HP’s board of advisers, the company’s stock had lost half its value. Those issues are sure to resurface as her campaign moves forward.
“I led Hewlett-Packard through a very difficult time, the worst technology recession in 25 years,” Fiorina said Wednesday night. “Yes, we had to make some tough choices.”
Moreover, although she has thus far capitalized among GOP voters as a political outsider, she has tried her hand — unsuccessfully — at politics. In 2010 she ran against incumbent California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, and took a 10-point drubbing on Election Day, thanks in part to flailing efforts to defend her HP record and the Boxer campaign’s effectively painting her as an out-of-touch elite.
Already, new lines of attack have opened on Fiorina. Planned Parenthood, for instance, sharply disputes her characterization of a fully formed fetus being kept alive to harvest its brain. None of the videos secretly recorded by anti-abortion activists show what she described taking place at a Planned Parenthood facility.
“Carly Fiorina’s claims about Planned Parenthood are completely untrue, which is consistent with a pattern of deception and dishonesty throughout her careers in politics and business,” Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood, said in a statement, according to The Wall Street Journal. “These images show nothing like what Carly Fiorina said they do, and they have nothing to do with Planned Parenthood. The video footage that she claims exists — and that she ‘dared’ people to watch — does not exist.”