Politics & Policy

In Iowa and New Hampshire, Carly Fiorina Is Rising

Fiorina greets voters in Clear Lake, Iowa, August 14, 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty)

An interesting thing is happening in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the early polls matter the most. Carly Fiorina is in third place, and rising. In Iowa, she leads every current and former Republican officeholder and trails only the other insurgent candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. In New Hampshire, she trails Trump and a surprising John Kasich. That’s bad news for Republican officeholders, good news for the political insurgents, and great news for Fiorina. In all likelihood, she will be the last outsider standing.

Political campaigns are long and brutal, with external events often dictating the topics and media coverage. A candidate can hope to run his campaign based largely on a single issue, only to have a terrorist attack or a market meltdown divert attention for weeks at a time. Or a candidate can falter because of the relentless pace, unable to stay on message and engaged all day, every day, month after month. I vividly remember watching Fred Thompson barely able to muster any energy during a 2007 Values Voter speech. Afterwards, a conservative leader looked at me, laughed, and said, “Someone wake up Fred Thompson and tell him he’s running for president.” Soon enough, Thompson — that cycle’s “conservative savior” — was out of the race, a footnote to presidential campaign history.

RELATED: CNN Changes Debate Criteria for Fiorina

The same may well happen to the current leading outsider candidates. Let’s be blunt, when the topic shifts from immigration, Trump just isn’t ready for prime time. He’s not fluent in foreign affairs, and despite his multi-billionaire status, he’s not fluent in economic policy, either. Yet, although it’s early for specific policy recommendations (and, besides, campaign specifics rarely become law), it’s not too early for competency.

While Trump is soaring on defiance, Carson is soaring on character. Yet when it comes to the presidency we’re looking for character plus — character plus ideas, character plus knowledge — and so far Carson is suffering from much the same lack of fluency as Trump. There’s time to improve, yes, but neither Trump nor Carson is prepared to pivot from issue to issue and engage them knowledgeably and persuasively.

#share#This is one reason politicians tend to defeat outsiders. Good politicians know how to talk, engage multiple topics effortlessly, and adjust their tone and substance for their audience. These talents — cultivated by years on the campaign trail — make them extraordinarily effective at winning elections. And with “winning elections” the chief bullet point on any political resume, it’s hardly surprising that so many politicians prove to be more effective at campaigning than governing.

But Fiorina — after the school of hard knocks of her own senate campaign — is proving that she can campaign as well or better than the best politician, and that difference will tell on the debate stage. In fact, it’s already made an impact, as she’s passed Jeb Bush in Iowa and New Hampshire despite competing so far only on the “JV stage.” If there is an outsider capable of bringing her “A game” to every debate, it’s Fiorina.

If there is an outsider capable of bringing her ‘A game’ to every debate, it’s Fiorina.

It’s also critical to note that Fiorina has separated herself from the political pack not so much by trashing fellow Republicans (although she has attacked Trump) but by proving to be most effective both at attacking Hillary Clinton and countering the television Left. Fiorina’s interviews are making the rounds in conservative circles. There’s Fiorina vs. Matthews on Hillary and Benghazi, Fiorina vs. Couric on climate change, and Fiorina vs. Whoopi Goldberg on life. In each instance, Fiorina went into the liberal lion’s den and triumphed, convincingly.

#related#Conservatives long for a fighter. We also long for a communicator, a person who can articulate conservative views and values in the same way that we see them — as uplifting our nation, our fellow citizens, and ourselves. Over time, Fiorina could well combine Trump’s core virtue — defiance in the face of the Left and of the Republican establishment — with the persuasive skills of the best political communicators. And she should be able to do so over the long haul of a campaign — speech after speech, debate after debate.

By no means is she a favorite yet for the nomination, but she’s now part of the conversation. Her unique skills will probably mean that when the dust settles, the secretary-turned-CEO will have won the outsider battle. She can topple Trump and Carson. The question is: Can she topple the political pros?

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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