There was one reason the second Republican presidential debate wasn’t simply a three-hour roast delivered by Donald Trump: Carly Fiorina’s entry into primetime. She succeeded where others haven't by throwing Trump off his game ever so slightly. Incredibly, she even managed to make him blush.
Reviews of her performance have been glowing, both from conservatives and the national press. "Carly Fiorina is absolutely killing it. KILLING it," the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza tweeted about an hour into Wednesday night's proceedings. And in the aftermath of the debate, CNN declared that Fiorina “distinguished herself,” Slate found she "impressed the crowd," the Daily Beast said she “slay[ed] sexist Trump onstage," and Bloomberg's Mark Halperin lauded her "crisp, confident, dignified, and, often, dominating presentation" as the best of the night.
Conservatives particularly liked her responses on Planned Parenthood and foreign policy.
While the men on stage ribbed each other and exchanged awkward high fives throughout the night, Fiorina remained earnest and unflappable. And in one of the most telling moments of the debate, she even managed to rattle Trump.
In a Rolling Stone profile published earlier this month, Trump remarked on Fiorina’s appearance. “Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that?” he said. At the start of her campaign, Fiorina played down her gender, saying that she is the antidote to Hillary Clinton’s “playing the gender card.” But in response to Trump's comments, she's embraced a new-ish feminist messaging, telling supporters that her face is the face of "leadership" and that she's "proud of every year and every wrinkle."
Asked about Trump's comments on Wednesday night, Fiorina minced no words. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she replied.
Trump’s self-confidence, possibly for the first time ever, seemed to falter momentarily. He appeared to blush, then struggled to recover. “I think she’s got a beautiful face," he managed, finally. It was the closest Trump has come to an actual apology.
As Trump has proven that he's more than a flash in the pan, Republicans have become desperate for a way to unseat him. So far, he's swatted away all salvos, but Fiorina has exposed a potential weakness. No wonder conservatives are singing her praises in the wake of Wednesday's debate.
Given the GOP's reputation for being anti-women, it's also useful for Republicans to finally have a woman standing on the same primetime debate stage, as an equal. Say what you will about Fiorina’s poor record at Hewlett-Packard, her low polling to-date, and her experience for commander-in-chief, but she is a strong performer in debates, delivering pithy answers confidently. For any Republican worried about how someone like Trump might fare against Hillary Clinton, Fiorina represents a break from the old-boys club of elite Republican politics.
As the only woman in the Republican primary, Fiorina claims she has authority on reproductive issues and equal pay. Yet, like the rest of the candidates on the stage Wednesday, she grossly misrepresented how Planned Parenthood operates.
“As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. 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,” she said.
Nor did Fiorina do much better on what CNN moderator Jake Tapper called a “lighthearted question” about what woman to feature on the $10 bill.
Mike Huckabee named his wife, Ben Carson his mother, and Donald Trump his daughter. Two, Jeb Bush and John Kasich, named foreigners. Naming a relative wasn’t as endearing as some of them probably thought; it only revealed that they were ignorant of American history, or haven’t taken women of historical importance seriously enough to consider.
This should have been an opportunity for Fiorina to stand out from the men around her, but she failed to capitalize. Instead of answering the question, she insisted she “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.” Then she pivoted to her usual line on the campaign stump, insisting that women aren't in need of special consideration on issues like equal pay, gender discrimination at work, insurance coverage for contraception, and the right to an abortion after 20 weeks. “What I would think is that we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group. Women are the majority of this nation,” Fiorina said.
In the end, the debate exposed all the usual problems Republicans have being female-friendly—Fiorina included. So while it's a breakthrough to see a woman rise in this kind of venue, it doesn't make the party any less backward on women's equality.