GOP debate: Carly Fiorina shows pluses, minuses of 'running while female'

Carly Fiorina won kudos for her performance at the GOP presidential debate Wednesday night, but being a woman in politics cuts two ways. 

Chris Carlson/AP
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field, stands third from right in the moments before the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday in Simi Valley, Calif.

Her gaze was steely, her answers articulate. And when Carly Fiorina was asked in Wednesday night’s GOP debate about a recent disparaging remark by Donald Trump about her appearance, she scored.

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” the former CEO of Hewlett Packard responded.

The billionaire came back with an attempt at damage control: “I think she's got a beautiful face,” Trump said, “and I think she's a beautiful woman.”

In one quick exchange, Fiorina showed why she belonged on the main debate stage, putting Trump – the dominant force of the Republican presidential field – on the defensive in a way that none of his nine male opponents could.

The brouhaha over Trump’s comment about Fiorina has widened a fertile area of discussion in the 2016 presidential race: the role of women in politics. And Fiorina stands to benefit, as does Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton, by bringing the special challenges women experience out into the open – and perhaps promoting understanding among voters.

It’s too soon to announce a Fiorina surge or the demise of Trump, but the race for the Republican nomination has clearly entered a new phase. Trump has been dinged; he failed to dominate the second debate the way he did the first, and that helps all the other Republican candidates, not just Fiorina.

The exchange at Wednesday's debate focused on a Rolling Stone article that quoted Trump saying about Fiorina: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!"

When the story broke, Trump insisted he was speaking about her “persona.” But an outside group supporting Fiorina came back with a killer web ad that targeted Trump without uttering his name. The ad, called “Look at this Face,” features ordinary women’s faces and a made-to-order clip of Fiorina speaking at a Republican women’s event.

“Look at this face,” Fiorina says. “This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.”

Women have made slow but steady strides in American politics, but remain far from parity in elective office and have yet to crack the “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” as Mrs. Clinton put it when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008.

Fiorina, the only woman in this cycle’s 16-person Republican field, has struggled to catch on in the 2016 race. But her strong performance in the first GOP “undercard” debate (for the low performers in the polls) gave her enough of a boost in her numbers to earn a spot on the prime-time debate stage Wednesday night.

Republicans cheered Fiorina’s promotion. She’s in a unique position to go after both Trump and Clinton – and to counter the Democratic narrative that Republicans are engaging in a “war on women.”

For instance, Fiorina scored big Wednesday night on a topic that many Democrats cast as part of the Republican war on women: abortion. She addressed the controversy around videotapes depicting Planned Parenthood’s use of tissue from aborted fetuses.

“As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes,” Fiorina said, referring “to a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating.”

Independent fact-checkers have called her characterization inaccurate.

The two most tweeted-about moments of the debate, according to Twitter, were two where her gender was relevant: Fiorina’s remark about Planned Parenthood and her response to Trump.

But there’s another aspect to Fiorina’s debate performance that bears mentioning. She barely cracked a smile the whole evening. And while Trump was exchanging high fives with the men who flanked him – Ben Carson, who has been surging of late, and Jeb Bush, who has been fighting Trump’s charges of “low energy” – Fiorina was clearly the interloper in the GOP boys’ club.

Voters, perhaps subconsciously, hold women to different standards from men in campaigns, experts on women in politics say. Male candidates are allowed a fuller range of emotions in public than female candidates, making it that much harder for women to win office.

“Women face what some scholars call the ‘double bind’: You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” says Kristina Horn Sheeler, a professor of communications studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “If a woman candidate is too huggy or touchy, she runs the risk of being perceived as too feminine, too mother-like.”

And if she goes in the opposite direction, she risks being called bossy or worse. In the presidential arena, the challenge for women candidates is particularly acute: Voters have to feel comfortable imagining that person appearing daily on their TV or computer screen for the next four years; a too-stern demeanor likely won't fly. 

Fiorina’s other challenge – perhaps bigger than her gender – is her record at Hewlett Packard. CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper pointed out that she laid off tens of thousands of people and was ultimately fired.

Fiorina said she led HP “through a very difficult time, the worst technology recession in 25 years.”

But when Fiorina ran for the Senate in 2010, Arianna Packard, the granddaughter of the company’s founder, urged voters not to support her. “I know a little bit about Carly Fiorina, having watched her almost destroy the company my grandfather founded,” Ms. Packard said.

Now, five years later, a new Fiorina moment has arrived. And in a hard-fought and highly fluid Republican nomination race, Fiorina has earned a fresh look from American voters. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also won kudos for his debate performance. Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida, showed some energy and challenged Trump in a way that he didn’t in the first debate.

But the story of the night was Fiorina, not Trump, and the Republican establishment is heaving a sigh of relief.

[Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time.]

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