After months of honing her message on the campaign trail, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina splashed down on the national stage debate stage Wednesday with carefully crafted, audience-tested talking points — and they worked. Her message was clear, coherent, and dominant. Fiorina also did what no one else managed to do during the second Republican debate: She left Donald Trump temporarily speechless. Despite polling at the bottom, she spoke for more than 13 minutes. That’s more time than nine other candidates were able individually to wrangle.
“Mic drop,” an aide told MSNBC, explaining why Fiorina wasn’t heading to the spin room to promote her debate performance as nearly every other candidate did.
The performance sparked a shift in attention, meaning that Fiorina — who has spent the past the weeks since her announcement rehearsing under relative obscurity offered by a crowded GOP primary field — must now evolve as a candidate. She will have to defend her liabilities and do so from center stage.
The scrutiny has already intensified: During the debate, Fiorina graphically described a purported scene from a secretly filmed anti-abortion video attacking Planned Parenthood. Reporters rapidly zeroed in, declaring that no such footage exists, though a woman was filmed describing an abortion like the one Fiorina referenced.
Politifact rated the statement “mostly false.” Vox’s Sarah Kliff watched all 12 hours of the footage released by anti-abortion activists who allege that Planned Parenthood is profiting from fetus tissue procurement. Her assessment? “What she says happens in the Planned Parenthood videos simply does not exist.” Planned Parenthood said such tissue is donated at the patient’s request, and the fees charged are to cover transportation and storage costs.
The anti-abortion argument was one of Fiorina’s newer points, but many of her most quotable moments in the debates are ones reporters on the trail have heard a dozen times or more.
That isn’t to say Fiorina, like many running for president, overuses a heavily scripted stump speech. On the contrary, earlier this summer Fiorina largely stopped using a stump speech and started spending all her time on the trail answering questions, weaving elements of her past speeches into her answers seamlessly and with impressive flexibility.
Still, while many in the audience may have heard for the first time Wednesday Fiorina’s joke about flying being an activity, not an accomplishment, it’s a line that she’s oft repeated. Here she is with it nine months ago.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing — traveling the country, introducing Carly to voters and answering their questions,” deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores told MSNBC. “Including today — 25 minutes of Q and A in Greenville, South Carolina.”
But it’s likely Fiorina will start facing more questions about her past at those events, particularly her business record, which was a big liability during her failed Senate bid in California five years ago. Then-incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer hit Fiorina hard for layoffs, outsourcing jobs, and sluggish stock prices at HP. The day she was fired, stock prices soared. Trump has seized on this at a town hall event in New Hampshire on Thursday night, when he referenced Yale’s Jeffrey Sonnefeld, who wrote a damning review of Fiorina’s record as CEO.
While she was at its helm, Hewlett-Packard reportedly did a lot of business with Iran, too, something that could be a liability amid nuclear negotiations and Fiorina’s harsh condemnation of America’s dealing with the country.
Fiorina, however, deflects these criticism routinely as a sign of her leadership and ability to shake up the status quo.
“I was fired in a boardroom brawl,” Fiorina told The Des Moines Register, using another line that she commonly employs on the campaign trail. “What I learned is that when you lead, when you challenge the status quo, you are gonna make enemies. It is the nature of leadership.”