Carly Fiorina's breakout moment: Can she capitalize on it?

The Cleveland debate has paid handsome dividends for this former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. In one week, she’s shot up in the polls – to tie for third nationally in a Rasmussen poll.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the RedState Gathering Aug. 7 in Atlanta.

It’s every candidate’s dream to have a breakout moment like Republican Carly Fiorina had at the  “junior varsity” debate a week ago. But turning that dream-come-true into the GOP nomination is another matter entirely.

No question, the GOP’s only female candidate put in an Olympian performance in the preliminary round. It began with a crisp delivery of her secretary-to-CEO rise and worldview and ended with a succinct, steely skewering of Hillary Clinton.

The Cleveland debate has paid handsome dividends for this former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. In one week, she’s shot up in the polls, from barely registering among the 17 candidates to a close fifth place in New Hampshire and a tie for fifth in Iowa. She's tied for third nationally in a Rasmussen poll.

She’s been all over the talk shows, with expectations that she’ll make the cut for the “varsity” debate Sept. 16 at the Reagan Library in California – her home state. At a time when Republican voters are sick of the Washington “cartel,” Fiorina has outsider cred, without the crassness of the leading outsider, Donald Trump.

“The boost that she got out of the first debate could become rocket fuel if she qualifies for the next debate, and I suspect she will,” says Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

But he also described Fiorina’s triumph as a challenge for a young campaign. “What do you do when you get your moment? The real issue is, can you capitalize on it?”

There’s the question of money and organization, and most important, actually winning an early caucus or primary. Many in the GOP field of 2012 also had their moment in the sun – then wilted. Mr. Mackowiak wonders about Fiorina’s path to victory, adding that finishing in the top three in Iowa would be “a bombshell” and “shake up” the race.

Fiorina has said she’s now seeing an “uptick” in donations, but has not given any details. So far she’s run a lean campaign: no paid pollsters or senior strategists; herself as her speechwriter; the tedious work of organizing and fundraising left mostly to an outside “super PAC,” according to The New York Times.

Then there’s her person and her message. She’s one tough cookie, and, as Mackowiak describes her, she’s a “three-legged stool conservative” – solid on social, fiscal, and foreign-policy issues.

But she was also fired from her CEO job and lost her bid for US Senate in 2010 by 10 points – in a Republican “wave” election. She has yet to undergo the scrutiny of first-tier candidates, but it’s starting.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are attacking her tenure at HP: the cutting of thousands of employees (remember the 2012 rap on Mitt Romney’s downsizing?), a controversial merger with Compaq Computer, and a sharply dropping stock price. 

“She does not know how to lead a company, let alone a nation,” Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, told The Atlantic.  Fiorina calls her firing "a boardroom brawl" and states proudly that she challenged the status quo.

The attacks from fellow competitors may also be starting. On CNN on Sunday, pack leader Donald Trump stated unequivocally: “She’s got zero chance.” Many observers would agree, though now with a bit less confidence than Mr. Trump. 

Which brings us to the “veep” question. It goes like this: Fiorina knows it’s highly unlikely she’ll win the nomination, so isn’t she really aiming to be the running mate?

“At least among the people like me who watch this race very closely, there’s a sense that she’s auditioning for vice president. She needs to shake that,” says Jennifer Duffy, of the independent Cook Political Report.

And yet, Ms. Duffy and others point to Fiorina’s strengths. 

She’s improved on the stump since her 2010 loss, says Duffy. The problem then was not any big mistake committed by Fiorina, but that she was running against a strong Democratic incumbent – Sen. Barbara Boxer – in a blue state. “I think she’s gotten better as a candidate.”

As viewers saw in the Cleveland debate, Fiorina’s communication skills stand out: short and clear sentences, on point, with zingers thrown in for effect.

“She says what a lot of us feel, but she says it better than any of us can say it,” as GOP strategist Mackowiak puts it.

Because she is a woman candidate, Fiorina can also go at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton without appearing sexist, and she’s done it relentlessly. She also hasn’t shrunk from taking on Trump – in the debate and after he made his controversial comments about Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly.

“I have had lots of men imply I was unfit for decisionmaking because maybe I was having my period,” Fiorina told CNN host Jake Tapper on Sunday.

This identification with women, as a woman, can be a great asset for Republicans. Fiorina often says that every issue is a women’s issue. She opposes popular ideas such as federally mandated paid maternity leave (voluntary, yes; required, no). But such a stance may not matter among Republican in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa.

Just look at the wildly successful Senate campaign of Republican Joni Ernst last year, points out Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. Ernst, a conservative anti-abortion candidate, became the state’s first female ever elected to either house of Congress.

Fiorina has been active in Iowa through the “Unlocking Potential Project” political action committee, which aimed at engaging women in the 2014 midterms and closing the gender gap for Republicans.

“Carly Fiorina has been well received in Iowa,” says Ms. Bystrom, who says her secretary-to-corner-office story resonates with Iowa women. “She’ll do well in Iowa. Because of Joni Ernst, women feel optimistic. That could rub off on her. Republican women are really anxious to have their answer to Hillary Clinton.”

Now that she’s broken free of the bottom-feeders, Fiorina’s well positioned to finish in the top three in Iowa says Bystrom. She’s not alone in that view.

Still, Bystrom points to a historic trend that does not bode well for the California business executive – no matter her personal ties to global leaders or the fact that she led what was once the largest technology company in the world. 

Fiorina has never held elective office, and that’s her biggest problem, say Bystrom and others. In the end, voters usually choose people with political experience for the highest office in the land.

“What’s interesting about Carly is everyone wants her to succeed,” Mackowiak sums up. “The party wants to find a place for her. It’s entirely possible that that place will be the vice presidential nomination. People are starting to talk about that.”

Much to the chagrin – or pleasure – of Fiorina. Only she knows which.

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