Even before the 5:00 GOP debate among lower polling candidates was over on Thursday evening, Carly Fiorina was declared the winner. And she probably was. But it was less about a stellar performance than it was about a total failure by every other candidates sharing that stage with her.
The so-called “kiddie table” or “JV” or, more festively, “Happy Hour” debate seemed like the opportunity each of those candidates should have been hoping for, given their place in the polls. The candidates could say bombastic things that would be rewarded with cable news soundbites. They could take advantage of a low-pressure situation because of low expectations. And they could take their shots at Donald Trump without him being able to fire back.
On Twitter, I wrote, “Sorry, folks. If you’re looking for political entertainment, the #GOPDebate ain’t gonna be it. Tune in at 5:00.”
I was wrong.
Rick Santorum appeared tired and agitated…on the very first debate. Lindsey Graham looked terrified, even when speaking about things in his wheelhouse like U.S. military options in the Middle East. Jim Gilmore was more rigid than Al Gore on his worst day. Rick Perry stumbled. George Pataki grimaced, no matter the gravity of the question. Bobby Jindal lacked any sort of focus.
The exception? Carly Fiorina, who had this memorable line about Trump and his consultation with Bill Clinton: “I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you guys get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I didn’t give money to the [Clinton] Foundation or donate money to his wife’s Senate campaign.”
Compared to the rest of that stage, Carly Fiorina came across as articulate, confident, disciplined and prepared. That is to say: Exactly how presidential candidates should appear.
That solid — not great — performance by Fiorina may say more about her cohort than anything else, but it was enough for virtually every outlet to declare her the winner of the 5:00 forum. And that declaration earned her a video appearance at the prime-time debate (as if to forewarn those candidates she could easily replace a number of them), as well as the positive chatter on all the morning talk shows Friday.
Whether or not that boost in media attention translates into a polling bump good enough to put Fiorina on the main stage next time remains to be seen. But after watching the 9:00 debate, it’s clear she performed considerably more presidential than a few of the main stage candidates.