If the first GOP primary debate did nothing else, it gave exposure to one 2016 hopeful who should have been a part of the larger pack in Thursday's main debate. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina proved herself a serious candidate during the evening's opening forum (which was, unfortunately, sparsely attended, to say the least), blasting all assumptions about her going into the event completely out of the water and capturing the attention of media outlets nationwide. That's a big shift from the 2008 and 2012 elections, when the few female presidential and vice presidential candidates ended up looking more like caricatures of themselves than anything else.
Unlike her female predecessors, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Fiorina was surprisingly strong out of the gate, especially given that her recent poll numbers had placed her at the bottom of the 17-person candidate list, with an average of around 1.3 percent of the vote. On Thursday evening, the former tech executive outshone her GOP rivals with ease, pulling statistics and anecdotes to support her arguments, rather than sticking to a pre-planned schedule, as so many of her fellow candidates seemed to do.
That strategy easily rocketed her to the top of everyone's social media newsfeed. Fox News commentator and divisive radio host Laura Ingraham called Fiorina's showing "dazzling" in a wrap-up following the forum. Newsweek reported that Fiorina had snagged Google Trends' top search spot in 48 out of 50 states, with rival Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal managing to steal his home state and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry taking Alaska. For all her perceived weaknesses, Fiorina was easily Thursday night's star.
Despite her empty political background and her reputation for allegedly tanking Hewlett-Packard during her tenure as CEO, Fiorina is no Saturday Night Live sketch. Her experience may not hold up under scrutiny in the same way as that of government fixtures like Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio, but she has the wherewithal to put that out in front of her and make sure people know that's something in which she takes massive pride. Instead of pushing the typical right-wing talking points, Fiorina has analyzed them and re-worked them to make herself seem more knowledgeable.
That's not to say that she's always right. In Thursday's GOP forum, Fiorina pulled out a typical, albeit sharpened, Republican talking point against the Democratic Party when she declared,
Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi, she lies about emails. She is still defending Planned Parenthood.
It was tired. If nothing else, it may have earned her a few accolades from Republican analysts looking for a firebrand underdog on whom to place their bets. But Fiorina was only beating a dead horse — one that continues to be a boring fallback for anyone trying pointlessly to take Clinton down a notch from her spot at the top. Fiorina also contended,
I spent all of last year with a lot of other conservatives pushing back effectively against the "War on Women." Cory Gardner did a great job; Joni Ernst did a great job — I had a super PAC out there called Unlocking Potential that was focused on pushing back against the War on Women.
While it may be true that Fiorina in 2014 did indeed head up the PAC, which was aimed encouraging more Republican women to jump into the political world, the move was largely perceived as a last-ditch effort to garner attention from female voters than a sincere promise of change in Washington. The Washington Post that month criticized the "disconnect" between the GOP and voters, adding that a simple showcase of female candidates was no substitute for legitimate reevaluation of topics that female voters cared about.
But it was better than nothing. And on Thursday, Fiorina showed her male colleagues that, despite being outnumbered, she was the one to beat. If the GOP was looking for a verifiable female candidate to bolster its support from women, Fiorina more than happily filled that spot.