Politics & Policy

Does Carly’s Rise Mean Trump’s Fall?

(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty)

The gotcha moment of last night’s debate was when Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was asked to respond to Donald Trump’s suggestions she didn’t have the “face” to be president (he later claimed he was referring to her “persona.”) “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” was Fiorina’s soundbite-perfect response. Trump looked deflated and lamely responded: “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

I’ll wait for scientific polls to roll in, but the clear consensus from last night’s debate was that Trump tripped and Carly shined. Since so much of Trump’s rise has been based on his outsider “persona,” we can expect Trump to start bleeding supporters to two other outsiders: the mild-mannered Ben Carson and the feisty Fiorina.

Carson — who comes across as someone who could have co-hosted PBS’ old Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood — was content to float above the fray for most of the marathon three-hour CNN debate, but even he got in a zinger against Trump by calling him “an okay doctor” after the billionaire’s bloviating answer on vaccines and autism — the same term that Trump had used to ridicule the pediatric neurosurgeon earlier this month.

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But it was Fiorina who stole the show. Excluded from the first debate last month, she finally had an opportunity to introduce herself to potential primary voters outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. Her performance was so impressive she didn’t even bother to show up or send a surrogate to the media “spin room” after the debate.

The clear consensus from last night’s debate was that Trump tripped and Carly shined.

Politico surveyed its anonymous panel of top GOP operatives, activists, and strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire. An astonishing 60 percent of those surveyed said Fiorina was the biggest winner of the night. Even a New Hampshire Democrat weighed in with this: “Fiorina drops the mic. Her closing argument was Jeffersonian. She handled Trump like the junior high schooler he is. Holy s***.”

Nonetheless, few Republicans are yet willing to put Carly in the front row of presidential contenders — many still believe she is building momentum to be the vice-presidential nominee. Among those considered likely to get the nomination, Jeb Bush was the runner-up in debate-performance reviews, with 18 percent of GOP insiders saying he did himself the most good, although several said he continued to overuse references to his time as Florida governor — an office he left almost a decade ago.

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Where Bush shined was in zinging Trump’s claim that he was not entangled with special interests. Bush noted that when Trump came to see him to get casino gambling legalized in Florida, it was Bush who rebuffed him despite a $1 million fundraiser that Trump had held for him. Trump flatly disputed that: “Totally false.”

“You wanted it, and you didn’t get it, because I was opposed to . . . ” said Bush, who was cut off by Trump saying; “I would have gotten it.”

Media fact-checking sites were unanimous that Trump’s version of reality was inaccurate and sided with Bush. Trump’s penchant for outright fibbing about his record or beliefs is not one that will serve him well in future debates.

#share#But the debate stage was filled with other personalities, all jostling for attention. A loser was Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, who improved his performance from the first debate, but was so elbowed out by other candidates that he wound up speaking for less than eight minutes — less than half the time Trump got. The Politico survey of Iowa GOP insiders found that 42 percent thought that Walker — once the Iowa frontrunner — came away the biggest loser from last night.

Ohio governor John Kasich tried to take the high road by saying the debate should be about big issues, but when it came to the Iran nuclear deal, he appeared slightly naive in contending it would be easy to revert to sanctions against Iran if it cheated.

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Marco Rubio was skilled and fluent in foreign policy, and was clearly the best natural communicator of anyone on stage last night.

Chris Christie scored big by saying that viewers “could care less” about the business careers of Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina and that the focus should be on the career prospects of those in the audience.

#related#Ted Cruz continued to play a cautious and clever game: never criticize Donald Trump, emphasize that he is the most hawkish and pro-Israeli candidate, and make the GOP House and Senate leadership his main target of abuse. His strategy appears to be to lay back and wait for Donald Trump’s disillusioned supporters to start coming his way.

Among the other candidates: Mike Huckabee seemed to be absent from much of the debate, but his challenge to an all-powerful Supreme Court’s power to create law was worthy of a legal scholar. Rand Paul was an effective attack dog against Donald Trump, and surprisingly displayed the legal backup that Trump didn’t have for his position on the issue of birthright citizenship.

We will now have more than a month before the next GOP debate, which will be in Colorado on October 28 and will focus on the economy. Predictions are rash, but I will put down mine: Going into that debate we will see a diminished Trump, an ascendant Fiorina, a still-popular Carson, and an establishment field still trying to sort out who is the most able to take on the outsiders.

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