In her first debate against Democrat Barbara Boxer in California’s Senate race five years ago, Carly Fiorina waited all of one minute to broadside the incumbent Democrat in her opening remarks.
Boxer was indifferent to Californians, Fiorina said, and her record was “devastating for this state.”
At the time, Fiorina and Boxer were nearly tied in public opinion polls. Fiorina was performing so well that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it planned to invest in the race, and Jon Fleischman, the conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director, said Boxer finally had “a real opponent.”
Then Fiorina flickered out. Two months later, she lost to Boxer by more than 10 percentage points.
In her return to politics – culminating in a breakout performance in Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate – it is unclear if Fiorina is enjoying only a moment, or something more lasting. Republicans in 2012 cycled through a league of up-and-down candidates before ultimately settling on Mitt Romney.
“Things change pretty quickly, especially in our primary process,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “What’s up today might be down tomorrow.”
Asked about the long-term prospects of candidates who are surging now, he said, “I have no idea.”
What’s up today might be down tomorrow.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee
Buoyed by her success in an “undercard” debate last month, Fiorina on Wednesday kept up her criticism of Hillary Clinton and challenged Donald Trump, the front-running real estate developer and TV personality. She invoked the 2009 death of her stepdaughter to call for more investment in drug treatment, saying, “My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction.” And she assailed Planned Parenthood over videos showing organization officials discussing the procurement of fetal tissue for research.
“I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes,” she said. “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.”
Critics said the videos contained no such image, and Planned Parenthood accused Fiorina of lying.
But the debate was widely viewed as a success for Fiorina. While many of her opponents and their surrogates streamed into the post-debate “spin room” on Wednesday night to recast their performances, Fiorina demurred. Her on-stage effort stood for several hours on its own.
The next morning, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive told ABC News, “I was very satisfied.”
Despite her prominent showing in early debates, Fiorina’s political network remains narrower than candidates who have spent years raising money for lower offices, and her fundraising lags behind. Fiorina reported raising just $1.7 million in the second quarter of this year.
During Wednesday’s debate, her campaign took to Twitter, asking followers to “pitch in $3” for the campaign. And the candidate herself appeared to acknowledge the field she has yet to overcome. When the candidates were asked what Secret Service code name they wanted if elected president, Fiorina said “Secretariat,” the horse that overcame slow starts on his way to winning the Triple Crown.
In her 2010 Senate campaign, Fiorina faced not only Boxer, but a Republican primary challenge from former Rep. Tom Campbell and then-Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
Marty Wilson, who managed Fiorina’s Senate campaign, said the primary was “no walk in the park.” Campbell, he said, was “a very good candidate, very articulate, obviously well schooled on the issues.” DeVore was more of a “classic conservative firebrand.”
In a debate that year, Fiorina dealt a blow to Campbell when he said people on the federal government’s no-fly watch list should not be able to buy a gun.
“That’s why Tom Campbell has kind of a poor rating from the National Rifle Association, right there,” Fiorina said.
“Carly had to first prove that she could hold her own with those guys, and she did, and came out of those debates on top, and then had to go debate Barbara Boxer,” Wilson said. “Carly’s pretty practiced in terms of debate performance.”
Though she ultimately lost, her defeat came in a heavily Democratic state – not the Republican primary electorate she is seeking to attract now.
Asked to respond to Trump’s remarks in Rolling Stone magazine about her appearance – “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” – Fiorina said, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Her response impressed even one prominent Democrat. Maria Shriver said on Twitter that Fiorina “handled response to #Trump comments about her face really well.”
I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.
Fiorina is not above personal comments – she called Boxer’s hair “so yesterday” in 2010 – or sarcasm. On Wednesday, she characterized Trump as a “wonderful entertainer” and declined to say if she would feel comfortable with him holding the country’s nuclear codes.
To Scott Wilk, a Republican assemblyman from Santa Clarita, Fiorina appeared sharper than in 2010, offering “a lot of specificity” and “great rhetoric.”
“I think having gone through that experience in the Boxer campaign has … honed her skills and, I mean, she rocks it out there,” he said. “She’s definitely top tier now.”
In this year’s unusually large field of candidates, Fiorina, Trump and Ben Carson – all of whom come from outside politics – together hold more support than the candidates who have held elected office. On Wednesday, Fiorina said “this nation’s possibilities and potential are being crushed by a government grown so big, so powerful, so inept, so corrupt, and a political class that refuses to do anything about it.”
Without achievements in elected office, Fiorina is promoting her record at HP, which became a liability for her in 2010, when Boxer criticized her relentlessly for laying off 30,000 employees and outsourcing jobs.
On Wednesday, Trump said HP “is a disaster and continues to be a disaster,” provoking Fiorina to criticize the real estate developer for bankruptcies at his casinos while running up “mountains of debt using other people’s money.”
Amid a lengthy exchange, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie interjected – assuming the role of a scold.
“While I’m as entertained as anyone by this personal back-and-forth about the history of Donald and Carly’s career, for the 55-year-old construction worker out in that audience tonight who doesn’t have a job, who can’t fund his child’s education, I’ve got to tell you the truth,” he said. “They could care less about your careers. They care about theirs.”
Now that she’s done really well at this level, you’re going to see some criticisms of her.
Beth Miller, California GOP strategist who worked on Fiorina’s Senate campaign
Following the debate, former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring, who is chairing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign in California, faulted Fiorina for engaging with Trump.
“It’s not smart to get into this back-and-forth on the debate stage, like this is some type of game show,” he said. “And I think it diminishes a candidate to get into that.”
But for Fleischman, who considered Fiorina a “real opponent” for Boxer in 2010, the debate was evidence that Fiorina has only “stepped up her game.”
“You almost wish the Fiorina of today was the one running back then,” he said.
Beth Miller, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser to Fiorina in 2010, said Fiorina’s gender – she is the only woman in a sea of men – puts her in a “unique position to talk about Hillary Clinton,” while her experience in business affords her a “unique position to go after Donald Trump.”
She said a good debate can rally interest in a candidate, opening some donors’ wallets. But there is a flip side of gaining momentum in a campaign.
“Now that she’s done really well at this level,” Miller said, “you’re going to see some criticisms of her.”