Fiorina Makes Mark at First GOP Debate

Fiorina Makes Mark at First GOP Debate
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CLEVELAND ­­­—In a debate among underdogs hoping to claw their way into the top 10 of the Republican presidential candidates, Carly Fiorina came armed with pointed, memorable attacks aimed at the GOP front-runners — and might have earned a spot on a future stage with them. 

Donald Trump was not on stage during the debate among the seven lowest-polling Republican presidential candidates Thursday, but he was “the elephant that is not in the room.”

“He is dominating this conversation,” said Fox News moderator Martha MacCallum, pointing to Facebook statistics showing extensive chatter about the businessman and his candidacy.    

Trump is, as MacCallum pointed out, dominant among the Republican field — in particular relative to the candidates in the undercard debate, who are all polling in the low single-digits nationally. 

“Like it or not, there is a huge disparity between the poll numbers he has and the poll numbers you have,” MacCallum said, turning to Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. “Is he getting the better of you?”

“He’s is the party’s front-runner right now, and good for him,” Fiorina acknowledged. “I think he’s tapped into an anger that people feel, who are sick of politics as usual.”

Perhaps hoping to bring Trump down a notch, some of his challengers came armed with attacks on his past policy stances, which have only been thinly vetted since he pole-vaulted into the lead. The remarks hinted at an emerging narrative among Trump’s Republican competition: that he has not consistently represented the party and its core policies.

“How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer healthcare?” said former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, invoking one of Trump’s controversial past stances.

Fiorina added: “Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, healthcare and abortion, I would just ask, ‘What are the principles on which he will govern?’” 

Without Trump on stage to defend himself, it would be left to the cast of the prime-time debate to push him for answers to those questions, or not. 

But, even as Trump loomed large over the undercard discussion, there were signs he is not the candidate Republicans are taking most seriously. In her closing remarks, Fiorina instead seemed to target former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the fundraising leader among Republicans and the second-ranking candidate in national polls.

“We need a nominee who will throw every punch, not stumble before he gets in the ring,” Fiorina said, alluding to Bush’s recent rhetorical missteps on the campaign trail — including when he said that workers should work longer hours to grow the economy, and a remark this week in which he suggested spending fewer federal dollars on women’s health. Bush later walked back both remarks. 

After the debate, Fiorina remarked specifically on Bush’s comment on women’s health funding, calling it “really disappointing when a front-runner gives the Democrats an ad and a talking point."

If the bottom tier of Republican candidates hoped to gain ground on Bush and Trump, however, the debate format proved challenging. The discussion was held in the same arena that will later Thursday host the debate for the top 10 Republicans, but the seven candidates on stage for the earlier round faced an empty space where the audience should have been. 

Meanwhile, the candidates were discouraged under the rules from talking with each other, giving the debate the feel of an extended group interview. The questions were often perplexing in their phrasing and focus, with the first round of questioning honing in on the candidates’ political shortcomings.

A statement from the Democratic National Committee called it the “pre-show” to the prime-time debate. One of the participants in the undercard event, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has taken to calling it the “Happy Hour Debate.” 

But no matter how junior varsity the debate seemed, the candidates were well aware that a breakout performance could launch them into the top 10 for the next round. After the debate, press swarmed Fiorina in the so-called “spin room,” suggesting she might have taken the prize.

"Everybody here can admit it — when I announced my candidacy on May 4, you didn't think we'd come this far,” Fiorina told the assembled scrum, after she was asked if she thinks she would crack the top 10 next time. “I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing."

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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