Carly Fiorina’s first challenge in the Republican debate was simply getting a spot on the main stage. Now, after a standout performance, her next quest is to convert a burst of enthusiasm for her candidacy into actual support from voters and donors.
Her success or failure will determine whether her breakthrough moment becomes a turning point in the Republican primary or simply a footnote.
Supporters in early voting states said they were encouraged by the flood of local officials who reached out in the hours after the debate to pledge their support.
“After last night, I’m with Carly Fiorina,” said Bryan Gould, a New Hampshire lawyer who was among those contacting Fiorina’s team.
Gould had also been considering Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, but he said Fiorina displayed the maturity he’s been looking for in a candidate.
Fiorina’s Iowa chairman, Christopher Rants, spent the day trying to make sure the candidate’s upcoming events in the state had space for bigger crowds. “We wanted to hold 150 people, better make sure it holds 200 — maybe more,” he said.
For Fiorina, this new attention will spur fresh scrutiny of her business record while she ran the technology company Hewlett-Packard — and a deeper examination of her current statements and policy positions.
The origin of one of her most attention-grabbing debate moments — her description of a video showing a fetus with legs kicking and heart beating — was already being questioned by abortion-rights groups, given that the scene she referenced apparently was based on a verbal account rather than a video. According to both Planned Parenthood and anti-abortion activists, there is no scene matching her description in any of the undercover videos at the heart of the debate over the disposition of fetal tissue from abortions.
Still, the debate’s immediate results were overwhelmingly positive for Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field. Her campaign had to aggressively lobby debate host CNN to change the participation criteria just so she could qualify for the event.
“We feel like last night reset the race,” said Keith Appell, a senior adviser to CARLY for America, a super PAC backing Fiorina.
At least in the short-term, Fiorina’s strong performance could jolt a Republican race that has been dominated by the unexpected rise of Donald Trump.
Appell said the super PAC, which has been running the bulk of Fiorina’s operations in key states, will keep trying to generate attention through free media and campaign appearances, while holding off on paid advertisements for now. The outside group is also looking to bolster its roster of “community captains” that can help recruit volunteers and organize voter turnout next year.
Even before Thursday’s debate, Fiorina had quietly garnered positive reviews from voters in early voting Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. She’s been among the most aggressive Republican candidates in taking on Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, arguing that if the GOP nominates a woman, it would block Clinton from being able to turn her campaign into a history-making quest to become the first female president.
Still, she’s struggled to translate praise into support in national polls. Just as concerning for Fiorina has been her lackluster fundraising. Her super PAC raised about $3.5 million in the first half of the year, while her campaign raised about half that.
Fiorina’s strong performance in last month’s undercard debate for low-polling candidates and her recent critiques of Trump helped give her campaign an extra spark heading into Wednesday night’s main contest. While Trump’s assertive, confrontational approach has confounded some of his rivals, Fiorina has been fearless in taking him on.
In one of the debate’s standout moments, she delivered a sharp rebuttal to derogatory remarks Trump had made about her appearance, a comment he later tried to walk back.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she declared.
Fiorina’s broader strategy — both in the debate and moving forward in the fall campaign — is to draft off Trump’s outsider appeal, while presenting herself as a more substantive alternative to the billionaire showman. She whipped through detailed answers on both domestic and foreign policy and also spoke movingly about her daughter’s death during a discussion on drug policy.
“I think she is rapidly becoming the more authoritative voice for the outsiders, the one who speaks with class and dignity and details,” said Mike Dennehy, who ran Rick Perry’s New Hampshire campaign until the former Texas governor pulled out of the race last week.
Still, Fiorina needs only to look back to the 2012 Republican primary to see how quickly a burst of momentum can fade. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann parlayed a strong debate performance into a victory in Iowa’s summer straw poll, but she faded by the time actual voting got underway. A slew of other longshot candidates also had moments atop the polls before collapsing.
Fiorina aides say she’s realistic about the impact of a single debate, but still came off stage visibly pleased with her performance.
And after the candidate stood throughout the three-hour debate, Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores added, “She wanted to take those heels off.”