Surrounded by 10 men on a hot debate stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, Carly Fiorina was unflappable and commanding as she maneuvered questions about foreign policy and sexism.
The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard fought her way into the second Republican debate on Wednesday night after a standout performance in last month’s “happy hour” debate in Cleveland. Buoyed by a bump in polls, the California debate was her chance to shine and she seized it.
“I was satisfied that I said what I needed to say last night,” Fiorina said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I hope what people saw last night is that I can win this job and I can do this job.”
Fiorina was asked early in the debate whether she would “feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes”. The question was meant draw her into a conflict with Trump who had recently been criticized for comments he made about her in a Rolling Stone interview about her looks and electability.
“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump is quoted as saying in the magazine profile.
But Fiorina didn’t take the bait. Instead, she called Trump a “wonderful man” and said that all of the candidates’ capabilities “will be revealed over time and under pressure”.
Fiorina has been clever in response to questions about Trump’s comments, carefully threading the needle between “playing the gender card”, as she calls it, and capitalizing on her role as the only female candidate in the Republican race.
Trump maintained that he was not talking about her looks, but rather her “persona”. Fiorina was asked during the debate to respond to what she thinks of Trump’s persona, teeing up the smack down.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr Trump said,” Fiorina replied to raucous cheers and applause. For his part, Trump looked genuinely taken aback.
“I think she’s got a beautiful face,” he interjected, quickly quieting the room. “I think she’s a beautiful woman.” Fiorina scowled, but did not engage further. Later in the debate, she hit him for his record of bankruptcies.
Confident and stately, Fiorina held a dominating presence on the stage, more than once interjecting candidates’ quibbling to offer a succinct and pointed response to the question.
Despite her spike in polling and domination of back-to-back Republican debates, Fiorina still has a long way to go before she closes in on the races’ frontrunners, Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. And the more recognition she gains, the more scrutiny she will face over her controversial leadership atHewlett-Packard where she laid off 33,000 employees before being ousted by the company’s board of directors. And even though her outsider status is appealing at the moment, she will eventually have to prove that a lack of political experience won’t hinder her in the White House.
On foreign policy, Trump spent some of his time attempting to explain away an earlier interview in which he said he admitted he didn’t know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah. In stark contrast, Fiorina demonstrated a solid grasp on foreign policy, laying out how she would handle the cool relationship with Russia and worsening conflicts in the Middle East.
Fiorina’s brand of feminism, however, did not include shifting her rhetoric on positions that many have called anti-woman.
When asked about Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization that has come under fire after a series of undercover videos claimed to show employees talking about the sale of fetal tissue donation, Fiorina doubled down on conservative outrage, channeling the visceral reaction to what many say were heavily edited videos intended to paint a skewed picture of Planned Parenthood.
“Anyone who has watched this video tape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes,” she said. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
The candidates were asked at the end what woman they would nominate to be on the $10 bill.
The men onstage nominated female family members or historical figures – not all of whom were American. But Fiorina took a different tack, arguing that putting a woman on the bill was nothing more than a political gesture and declining to name a single woman.
“I wouldn’t change the $10 bill or the $20 bill. I think, honestly, it’s a gesture. I don’t think it helps to change our history,” she said. She repeated her refrain that “we ought to recognize women aren’t a special interest group”.
The next morning, Fiorina went on the morning talkshows, receiving plenty of praise for her breakaway performance from the hosts. On CNN’s New Day, she was asked about Trump’s comments, and whether sexism still exists in American politics.
“It’s still different for women,” Fiorina said Thursday on CNN. “It’s only a woman whose appearance would be talked about while running for president – never a man. And that’s what women understand.”
“Women are half this nation. Half the potential of this nation,” she added. “But somehow we still spend a lot of time talking about women’s appearance and not their qualifications.”