Fiorina, Poised to Lead Counterattack on Trump?

Fiorina, Poised to Lead Counterattack on Trump?
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As Donald Trump slashed and burned his way through the crowded GOP field this summer, Carly Fiorina managed to avoid his caustic gaze and remarks — until last week. Now, as she prepares to join Trump and nine others on the prime-time debate stage, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive may be uniquely positioned to counter his charge.

After the billionaire businessman made controversial comments about her appearance – “Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that?” he said during a Rolling Stone interview — Fiorina became empowered. The candidate talked about “the face of leadership” during a campaign stop in New Hampshire over the weekend, saying, “This is the face of a 61-year-old woman, and I am proud of every year and every wrinkle. “

On Monday, a super PAC supporting her released an online ad featuring footage from that campaign event. “Ladies, note to the Democrat Party: We are not a special interest group; we are the majority of the nation,” Fiorina says in the spot, as faces of women flash across the screen.

With Trump continuing to lead in the polls and suck up much of the campaign-trail oxygen, Wednesday night’s debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in California’s Simi Valley could provide a showdown between the frontrunner and the candidate who just made it over CNN’s bar for inclusion in the mainstage event.

Unlike her fellow competitors, the lone female in the GOP primary hasn’t suffered for criticizing Trump. During the “undercard” Fox News debate last month, Fiorina took a swipe at his relationship with the Clintons: “"I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race," she said. In the days that followed, she criticized Trump on Twitter and in subsequent interviews for his inappropriate comments about Fox News anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly.

Fiorina’s performance boosted her in the polls and into the main event this week. None of other debaters in the early Cleveland debate was able to do so, and Rick Perry, one of the first candidates to come out swinging against Trump, bowed out of the race on Friday after struggling to gain ground and pay his bills. Lindsey Graham also hasn’t reaped any benefits after attacking the frontrunner and instead remains at the bottom of the pack. Bobby Jindal, also low in the polls, last week trained his focus on Trump in the hopes of getting traction, but the outcome remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Fiorina has improved her standing. This is due in part to her stand-out first debate performance and an aggressive, if lean, ground campaign in the early states. But she has also been strategic in her shots at Trump.

“Some candidates went Full Monty early on, and were destroyed and embarrassed out of the race,” says Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway. “But Carly has put herself in a category all her own: She responds to attacks he’s made on her, but she has not designated herself the 24/7 fly in the Trump ointment. And she hasn’t allowed the Trump bump to throw her off her game.”

Another advantage Fiorina has going for her is that she is a political outsider at a time when the Republican voters seem to be craving a non-politician. In addition to Trump’s steady lead in the polls, neurosurgeon Ben Carson is gaining ground as well. Together, the outsider candidates hold half the current support from GOP primary voters.

Unlike those two, however, Fiorina has run a campaign before — albeit an unsuccessful one. In 2010, she lost a high-profile U.S. Senate race to Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer of California. Still, supporters say that experience has helped her know what to expect and how to better campaign this time around.

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Trump in first place with 30.4 percent backing, Carson in second with 16.8 percent and Fiorina in sixth with 4.4 percent, behind Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.

So far, what has helped Fiorina survive the summer of Trump was not fixating on him. Whereas Bush waited to strike back at Trump’s daily and personal attacks until he could no longer afford not to, she has responded swiftly and less frequently.

“She’s a very talented communicator, and she has made her remarks vis a vis Trump when it made sense to do it,” said Reed Galen, a California-based Republican strategist. “It’s not a cornerstone of her campaign.”

Of course, Fiorina has not been the focus of Trump’s scorn the way Bush has; the former Florida governor was left with little choice but to fight back frequently. But now that Fiorina has gained some momentum, Trump has taken notice.

“Maybe, just maybe, I am just getting under his skin a little bit because I am climbing in the polls,” she said last week in response to the comments about her face. (Trump later insisted he was referring to her “persona,” not her looks.)

But now that she must stand on the same stage as the frontrunner, who will be front and center, Fiorina will have to perform a delicate balancing act: simultaneously trying to counter Trump while also introducing herself to voters. And though there’s no telling exactly how Trump will behave, he is likely to attack her controversial record at Hewlett Packard, where she was fired after a rocky six-year tenure.

“The fact is that Carly Fiorina has had a terrible past," he told CNN last week.

The former CEO has defended her HP record on the campaign trail, and often draws contrasts to Hillary Clinton. Over the weekend, she gave a taste of how she will likely bring Trump into the mix.

“I will challenge Mrs. Clinton, any other politician, and the entertainer who's running for office, to hold themselves to that same level of accountability,” she told a group in New Hampshire about her time leading the computer giant. “Because none of them are going to be able to stand up to that level of scrutiny.”

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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