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At the Third Republican Debate, Carly Fiorina Couldn't Save Herself

Justin Sullivan/Getty

There was very little doubt that Carly Fiorina would deliver a strong performance at the Republican debate Wednesday night. One hour into the evening, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard was already nimbly fielding questions and offering sharp ripostes. But can she translate her performance at the debate into palpable momentum on the campaign trail? Although she had a relatively strong showing—and she commanded the most speaking time—she didn't do nearly enough to move up in the polls or the race itself. 

She hammered home the point that Washington is broken, a subtle argument to persuade viewers to vote for an outsider like herself. Tonight, she’s been hammered again on her record as CEO at HP; thus far, her response has been to distance herself from the company’s falling stock numbers, calling it boardroom politics—“we saved 80,000 jobs and we went on to grow to 160,000 jobs, and scores of technology companies literally went out of business.” She was one of the first debaters to raise that traditional Republican bogeyman: the creeping threat of socialism. “Crony capitalism is alive and well in Washington and it has been for decades,” she said. “This is how socialism starts: Government starts a problem and then steps in to fix it. The big and powerful use big and powerful government to their advantage.” Here, she seems to be echoing the McCarthy era, when government officials invoked fears that socialism was permeating Washington’s highest echelons.

Fiorina was also able to take advantage of her corporate background to field the economic questions lobbed by the CNBC moderators, advocating for her (patently insane) three-page tax plan in simple language.

The most important moment Fiorina had tonight was when she tried to position herself as a champion for women—all while taking aim at Hillary Clinton. “Every single policy she espouses and every single policy of President Obama has been demonstrably bad for women,” Fiorina said. “I am a conservative because I know our values, our principles, and our policies work better to lift everyone up, men and women.”

She has a complicated feminist record. As the New Republic's Rebecca Leber has pointed out, Fiorina has suggested that modern feminism is “an orthodoxy that seeks to portray all men as the enemy and women as requiring the constant assistance of government.” In light of her complicated relationship with feminism, her argument about championing women from within the Republican Party simply fell flat. 

Even so, Fiorina may get a bump in the polls after her performance tonight. The first debate propelled her from 2 percent to 9 percent in national polls. The second pushed her—at least briefly—to 15 percent. But every time Fiorina has risen in the polls after a debate, she’s sunk nearly as quickly. In the month after the last debate, she dropped eleven points, to around 4 percent. Those dips may have stemmed from her apparent inability to make headlines off the debate stage—she has all but disappeared from the news in the last few weeks. “She needs to come out with some strong statements after the debate to carry her message forward,” said Dianne Bystrom, the director of the Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, in an interview Wednesday morning. Jonathan Martin, a politics writer for The New York Times, was incredulous. “The second that she got into that second debate, the second they knew there was going to be an extra lectern up there for her, her staff knew that she had it in her to have a strong debate,” he said in an interview. “Why weren’t they thinking about, ‘How can we capitalize on this?’” Clearly, Fiorina needs to come up with a new strategy this time around.