October 25, 2021


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SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—Carly Fiorina, who was stuck at the kids’ table during the first debate, has emerged as the undisputed victor of the second.

She’s a non-politician and a fighter in a moment when those qualities are in high demand by the Republican base. She’s the only woman running at a time when Democrats are likely to nominate Hillary Clinton. And her memorable zingers here last night impressed not just activists but conservative thought leaders and elites across the mainstream media.

Fiorina showed she can bloody Trump, and her back-and-forth with him may soon be seen as a tipping point. She succeeded at making him uncomfortable. That is something that Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and others have tried but failed to do.

Asked about Trump mocking her looks in an interview with Rolling Stone, Fiorina deadpanned: “Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The line resonated. “It clearly was a harpoon and it stuck,” Hugh Hewitt said after the debate.

She also gave the crowd chills when she talked about losing her stepdaughter to drugs.

A host of female conservative pundits were especially enamored. “Trump finally met his match,” wrote “Right Turn” blogger Jennifer Rubin. “In a smashing performance that will earn her poll points, campaign donations and praise from Republicans, she went after Trump with surgical precision.” Katie Pavlich of TownHall.com, a frequent Fox talking head, said Fiorina “landed a number of punches on Trump and is the only candidate so far in the race who has been able to successfully do so.”

But it was more than Republican women. ABC’s Jonathan Karl declared Fiorina “the clear stand out.” Jonathan Capehart called Fiorina’s response to the Rolling Stone quote “the knock-out moment of the night.” The headline on the cover of the New York Post today says “Carly trumps The Donald.”

Marco Rubio alluded to his botched State of the Union response at the top of the debate. The joke fell flat, or felt stale, for many. (Max Whittaker/Pool via Bloomberg)

— Rubio is also widely perceived as a big winner of last night’s showdown at the Reagan library. Here’s a round-up of what insiders had to say after the debate, compiled by PowerPost’s Kelsey Snell and David Clarke—

  • National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry said he will be “very surprised if Carly doesn’t continue her rise after this.” Rubio was “excellent,” he thought, “but he didn’t have one signature moment.”
  • Karl Rove, appearing on Bill O’Reilly’s show, picked Fiorina and Rubio as the two winners. He said the question is whether Rubio’s numbers will improve after this because they did not last time. He said the “most improved” were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. He thinks Ben Carson didn’t do well, Mike Huckabee didn’t do much and Rand Paul looked desperate.
  • The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes said Fiorina and Rubio were “co-winners.” He ranked the others this way: 3. Christie; 4. Walker; 5. Cruz; 6. Kasich; 7. Huckabee; 8. Bush; 9. Paul; 10. Carson; 11. Trump.
  • Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson said Fiorina and Rubio both peeled off Trump supporters in her focus group. They asked participants before and after: who’s your favorite? It started out with 10 for Trump and two for Carson. Fiorina and Rubio peeled off two Trump supporters each.
  • Frank Luntz said on Fox that only one person in his focus group offered a negative comment about Fiorina. They liked her, Rubio and Christie.
  • Digital strategist Liz Mair said Fiorina “edged out” Rubio. “But the main reason I say that is she didn’t make the dumb water joke upfront,” she wrote. She called Trump a “big time” loser, with Walker—her former boss—and Huckabee “to a lesser extent.”
  • RedState’s Erick Erickson: “Carly may have won tonight’s debate, but I suspect Rubio has won some Bush donors.”
Who else helped themselves?
  • NBC “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd said it is “hard to name one winner.” But he argued that Carly, Jeb, Christie, Cruz and Rubio all improved their standing.
  • Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin says Carly had the best night, Carson shined, and Jeb held his own, but no one delivered a knockout blow. His report card: Fiorina A–, Carson B+, Trump B+, Bush B, Rubio B.
  • 538’s Nate Silver wrote that “Fiorina won the first half of the debate, Rubio won the second half, and Bush won the third half.”
  • The Fix’s Chris Cillizza named five winners besides Fiorina: Rubio, Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Christie and Jeb in the third hour. His losers were Walker, Huckabee, Rand, Jeb in hours one and two, as well as Rick Santorum.

— Looking ahead: Who is going to go after Fiorina now? It’s a tricky dynamic to attack the only woman on stage, which is why Christie looked like such a bully when he snapped at her for trying to chime in as he made a point. “Carly, listen,” the New Jersey governor admonished her. “You can interrupt everybody else on this stage; you’re not going to interrupt me, okay?”


— Conservative men like that Fiorina does not explicitly play the woman card. “When the moderator asked the candidates which woman they would like to see on the $10 bill, the male candidates offered suggestions including Rosa Parks, the choice of Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), and Mother Teresa, the pick of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Fiorina said she wouldn’t make any changes,” Vanessa Williams writes. “Honestly, it’s a gesture. I don’t think it helps to change our history,” Fiorina said. “What I would think is that we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group.”

— Her success will draw tougher scrutiny of her business record. E.J. Dionne Jr. calls her the “big winner” but thinks that “she lost some ground as the debate wore on” and that “she lost the exchange with Trump over her stewardship of Hewlett-Packard.” Other journalists, like Vox’s Sarah Kliff, point out that Fiorina pretty significantly exaggerated what is on the Planned Parenthood undercover videos, at least the ones that have been released.

— Carson’s unwillingness to engage with Trump the way that Fiorina did made him look soft. He was reluctant to decry the billionaire’s scientifically-discredited position on vaccines. Though he’s second in the polls, Carson did not get a representative amount of time to speak because the moderators recognized that he was in no mood to go after his rivals. He wouldn’t even restate his criticisms of Trump’s plan to build a border wall. “I didn’t like the format very well,” Carson said in the spin room afterward.

The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol talked down Trump and Carson after the debate. “One minor problem revealed or confirmed by the debate: The two leaders in the GOP race in the polls aren’t qualified to be president,” he tweeted. “Prediction: Neither party will nominate either of the top two candidates in the polls. Not Trump or Carson, not Clinton or Sanders.”

Donald Trump talks with Carly Fiorina after the debate (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Trump’s campaign could end with a whimper, not a bang. Jeb and others, including Walker, took him seriously last night. “For the first time since he joined the race, Trump wasn’t the commanding presence on the stage,” Dan Balz writes in his front-page take. “Trump was put on the defensive as much as he tried to stay on the offensive.” While he may continue to dominate the polls, the debate indicated that “he can expect a bumpier ride in the weeks and months ahead,” Dan predicts.