Davenport, Iowa — Remember Carly Fiorina?
It was only three months ago that her name was on everyone’s lips. After triumphantly ascending from the kiddie table to the main debate stage, she had put on a dynamite performance, landing a clean blow on Donald Trump when no other candidate could. Major donors, suddenly, were adding her to their lists. In national polls, she’d shot up to a comfortable third place behind Trump and Ben Carson, who had long monopolized the top two spots. A candidacy that had once appeared quixotic suddenly seemed plausible.
With the Iowa caucuses now just five weeks away, has Carly Fiorina missed her moment?
“I think that after the debate, when she had her moment, she didn’t come back here and really churn through that. She was the ‘it girl’ for the moment, for lack of a better term, and she just kind of petered that away,” says one Iowa Republican aligned with another campaign. “The appeal and the newness, I think that’s all gone now. She’s just . . . not the shiny new object anymore.”
“She’s great in the debates — but there didn’t seem to be anything in the state that was following up to the debates giving her any kind of more momentum,” says former Iowa state senator and WHO radio host Jeff Angelo.
Fiorina’s campaign says they intentionally avoided hyping her breakout performance at September’s Reagan Library debate as her candidacy’s big moment. Sustaining a sudden surge of momentum for four months would have been difficult, if not impossible, and would have made her a target for other candidates.
“The goal was never to win October. We saw others win April and May and build operations that couldn’t even sustain through the fall,” says deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Fiorina is the perception that she would make a great vice president for one of the other candidates in the race.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Fiorina is the perception that she would make a great vice president for one of the other candidates in the race. That has been a constant refrain since she first launched her bid for the White House, one that both she and her campaign fought hard to quiet. For a period after her coming-out party in Simi Valley, it looked like that effort had succeeded. But now, with her poll numbers lagging, the VP chatter is back.
“I think Carly would be a great ticket. . . . Depending on who the lead is, her included. I think she needs to be on the ticket somewhere,” says Utah businessman Scott Keller, who has donated money to Fiorina and calls himself a “big fan.” Keller was a major contributor to Mitt Romney’s campaigns the last two cycles, but this time around he’s spreading his wealth. He held an event for Kasich last week, and says he hopes to host Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie in January.
Paul Clark of New Hampshire sits on the Nashua Republican City Committee and endorsed Christie, but helped host an event for Fiorina in July anyway.
RELATED: Carly Fiorina as Secretariat
“I’ve been working for Christie for a year now; I think he would make a great president,” he says. “And frankly I think she would make a great vice president. It really comes down to that.”
“It’s definitely a hurdle that people still see her that way,” acknowledges Stephen DeMaura, executive director of Carly For America, the main pro-Fiorina super PAC. But the candidate herself dismisses that notion.
“We’ll get past it,” Fiorina tells National Review after a town hall in Burlington. “All these people who are caucusing for me aren’t caucusing for me because they want me to be veep. They’re caucusing for me because they want me to be president. They want me to be president, and they want to see me beat Hillary Clinton.”
What’s striking about her, says New Hampshire GOP consultant Mike Dennehy, is “how much people like her. It’s actually crazy.”
And therein lies her campaign’s strategy: keep her in the race long enough for the field to narrow, forcing voters to turn to their second-choice candidate.
DeMaura’s super PAC, to which the campaign has effectively outsourced its ground game, has full-time staff in twelve of the states that hold nominating contests on or before March 15: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, which hold the first four contests; Vermont, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia, and Oklahoma, which hold their contests on March 1; and Kansas, a March 5 caucus.
Neither the campaign nor the super PAC believes Fiorina needs to win, or even finish top three in any of the first four states, to justify her continued presence in the race. Rather, both her campaign and her super PAC say, she has to “exceed expectations.” Then, as other candidates who have staked their campaigns on a single state begin to drop out, the campaign hopes voters will begin to turn to her.
“We’ll survive and move on to the next state with a drastically smaller field. With that smaller field, that’s when the race really begins,” DeMaura says, insisting that there’s no drop-dead date beyond which she cannot compete.
But there are some evident dangers to that strategy. Even in a smaller field, if other candidates have momentum, there might be little oxygen left for a candidate who is only doing well enough to “survive.” And by the time the winner-take-all primaries roll around on March 15, the only way to secure delegates will be to win states outright, which means she’ll have a slim window to reignite her candidacy if the field does start to narrow.
What’s more, the expectations will rise with each passing contests she “survives” — and it’s not clear where the expectations start for Fiorina at this point. The Reagan Library debate ensured she could no longer claim to be a barely known candidate with little money. She raised $6.8 million in the third quarter, more than Marco Rubio, who is currently perceived as the establishment front-runner. Though she’s polling about as well as Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee, that much money would seem to put her in a different category from other struggling candidates.Iowa and New Hampshire observers say her super PAC’s organization leaves her well positioned to take advantage of a surge in the final weeks — if she can touch one off.
“A buzz needs to develop no later than mid-January,” says Dennehy.
But both campaign and super PAC argue that Fiorina doesn’t need another breakout moment to outpace expectations into February. “Candidates with moments aren’t the ones that win the primaries,” says DeMaura.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.