Fiorina displayed a clear understanding of the issues and challenges at hand -- what voters tend to view as competence -- some reasonable level of diplomacy and emotionally contained compassion, and a clear command of the stage. She dealt with Trump's assessment of her face -- or, as he says, persona -- and summoned the rest of American womanhood to her side with a rather swift and decisive Trump dismissal. Most notably, Fiorina combined all of the above when she mentioned the way that the substance abuse-related death of an adult stepdaughter -- a loss that Fiorina previously has been reluctant to discuss -- had shaped her ideas on drug policy.
"I very much hope I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing," Fiorina began. "My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction."
Fiorina began to argue that marijuana is different today than it was decades ago -- even adding a light-hearted callback to Jeb Bush's admission to smoking pot 40 years ago, which drew laughs. "But we need to tell young people the truth," Fiorina said. "Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people. I know this sadly from personal experience."
Going into Wednesday's debate at the Reagan Presidential Library, Fiorina and her opponents had very likely been warned by handlers, consultants and researchers galore that the on-stage gender dynamics would be difficult to navigate. The conventional and much-repeated wisdom over the last few days was essentially this:
With Fiorina in the competitive mix -- a situation that wasn't assured until just 12 days ago when CNN changed its criteria for candidates for the main stage debate -- the men needed to be mindful. Aggression, alpha-male behavior and attacking one's competition can be good for male candidates. That kind of behavior comports with the hyper masculinity that defines so much of what many Americans think that leadership and competence look and sound like. But when turned on a lone woman, that same behavior can register as unkind and, well, not presidential. At the same time, female candidates often have to appear more competent and less emotional to be seen as viable or reasonable election prospects. But go too far in that direction and a female candidate risks violating cultural prescriptions about femininity.
Of course, 2016 is the year of the political novice, particularly one Donald J. Trump. And Trump's rise to the top of GOP polls seems to have been boosted rather than hurt even as his public comments about immigration, about women and their looks, about prisoners of war and multilingualism have grown more frequent -- and at times more coarse. So that underlying temptation, to make use of Trump tactics, was probably hovering somewhere on stage, too.
Truthfully, after nearly three hours of extended debate on everything from the English language to the proper way to deploy and staff American military forces, deal with geopolitical conflicts, appoint Supreme Court justices, address women's health-care needs, drug policy and economic growth, there was so much said that viewers would be forgiven for struggling to remember who said what, when and in response to which question.
Trump offered a few humdingers, congratulating former Florida governor Jeb Bush for his higher energy level and responding to attempts by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to admonish Trump for critiquing other candidates' looks by insisting, "I've never commented on his look and believe me, there is plenty of material there." Others seemed determined to insert moments of audience participation -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's introductory statement called for a show of hands -- or levity. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker twice stated a clearly rehearsed line about having "an apprentice" in the White House when talking about Trump.
Viewers who managed to slog that far also heard Trump make reference to a need to more carefully monitor North Korea and "perhaps a couple of other places" that he did not name, for nuclear threats. Fiorina and Trump vigorously defended their business records, and Christie admonished them both for reviewing their resumes when many Americans continue to struggle to find and maintain work.
In one of many moments in which retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told moderators they had misunderstood or misstated his publicly expressed views, Carson said his suggestion that a minimum wage increase might indeed be needed was really a call for a two-tier minimum wage structure. One for "young people," or what Carson called a starter wage, and one for "sustainers," presumably people who are not young but earning the minimum wage.
Christie made an easy-to-follow case against Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton's Chappaqua, N.Y., basement-based e-mail server system. The basement server was vulnerable to hacking from terrorists, spies and 18-year-old pranksters, Christie said. And after making the argument that his ability to speak Spanish and English is an asset, not a problem, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told moderators and the assembled audience that presidents must know and understand the country's greatest challenges on day one, not six months after their election or after they assemble their team.
In the final minutes of the debate, Huckabee put out a general call for focus on finding cures and better treatments for common diseases. Earlier, Huckabee described the Kentucky clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned same-sex marriage bans in several states as an example of growing Christian persecution. Also, Fiorina made an apparently false claim about the content of those secretly recorded Planned Parenthood videos.
It was, in essence, a night in which many candidates did okay-to-well, few managed to go long periods without speaking and, although the debate's moderators deserve some credit for the aforementioned, few of the candidates on stage seemed to want to do so.