Less than halfway through the debate for Republican presidential hopefuls not quite popular enough for the main stage, the consensus was clear: Carly Fiorina nailed it.
She wasn’t flustered by questions that centered on how she is such a long-shot candidate, instead assuming the air of a composed and poised executive. She called Hillary Rodham Clinton a liar and criticized the GOP field’s new front-runner, Donald Trump. She managed to talk longer than nearly everyone else on the crowded stage. Oh, and she was funny.
Twitter buzzed with compliments, she spiked in Google searches and political commentators deemed her the winner.
“They should invite carly fiorina back for the 9 oclock debate,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich wrote on Twitter.
The performance was classic Carly. The former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard — who has never held elected office — has often earned warm applause, laughter and standing ovations from conservative audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But those standout performances have yet to give her any sort of meaningful bump in early polls. Many voters still don’t know who she is, frequently mispronouncing her last name. That’s why she was participating in Thursday’s second-tier debate rather than the prime-time event featuring the 10 highest-polling candidates.
Her closest competition for attention was former Texas governor Rick Perry, who stumbled four years ago by declaring “oops!” on a presidential debate stage but was generally well-received on Thursday.
Fiorina’s performance yet again sparked the question: Is this the moment that will allow her to break out of the bottom tier of candidates, even by a little bit?
The first question of the night bluntly laid out the challenges facing Fiorina: “You were CEO of Hewlett-Packard. You ran for Senate and lost in California in 2010. This week, you said: ‘Margaret Thatcher was not content to manage a great nation in decline, and neither am I.’ Given your current standings in the polls, is the Iron Lady comparison a stretch?”
Fiorina didn’t flinch, comparing herself to four former U.S. presidents. “Well, I would begin by reminding people that at this point in previous presidential elections, Jimmy Carter couldn’t win, Ronald Reagan couldn’t win, Bill Clinton couldn’t win, and neither could have Barack Obama,” Fiorina said.
Fiorina introduced herself to viewers with this quick bio: She worked her way up to becoming CEO of the largest technology company in the world, so she understands the economy, global markets and reducing bureaucracy.
“I understand leadership, which sometimes requires a tough call in a tough time,” said Fiorina, who was forced out of Hewlett-Packard following a nasty battle with her board that became painfully public at times. “But mostly, the highest calling of leadership is to challenge the status quo and unlock the potential of others.”
Fiorina delivered perhaps the most memorable lines of the debate when asked why Trump was doing so well in the polls.
“Well, I don’t know, I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” she quipped, referring to a conversation between Clinton and Trump before the latter joined the 2016 race. “Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
What she didn’t mention is that she had shared a stage with the former president during a Clinton Global Initiative event last year in Denver. Fiorina then turned serious and suggested that Trump had “tapped into an anger that people feel. They’re sick of politics as usual.”
Fiorina’s harshest criticism was, as always, for Hillary Clinton. Fiorina has argued that as a woman, she would be able to aggressively take on Clinton without fear of being labeled sexist.
“Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi. She lies about e-mails,” Fiorina said. “She is still defending Planned Parenthood, and she is still her party’s front-runner.”
Fiorina also took a veiled shot at former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a candidate who has stumbled on the campaign trail.
“We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets into the ring,” Fiorina said.
Philip Rucker in Cleveland contributed to this report.