Fiorina's polished debate performance instantly elevated her in the eyes of Republican primary voters
But that same debate performance that propelled her in the polls could be one of the factors fueling her decline
Carly Fiorina’s brief time in the top ranks of the Republican presidential pack is over – for now.
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive soared to second place nationwide last month following a breakout performance at CNN’s Republican debate. But a new CNN/ORC poll released on Tuesday found that Fiorina fell to seventh place with support from just 4% of potential Republican primary voters.
Fiorina’s polished debate performance – her takedown of Donald Trump, fluency on foreign policy issues and passionate criticism of Planned Parenthood – instantly elevated her in the eyes of Republican primary voters who have flocked to Washington outsiders this cycle. But in the weeks since, her campaign has appeared to lose steam.
Instead of using her moment in the spotlight to discuss a range of issues and further introduce herself to voters, she instead trained her focus on Planned Parenthood.
“They had this moment and in some ways reduced it by not taking a broader, frankly, more presidential focus,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist. “They weren’t prepared for the moment they fought so hard for.”
One of the most powerful moments of the GOP debate came when Fiorina referred to one of the undercover Planned Parenthood videos that was shot and edited by an anit-abortion group.
“I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,” she said.
Even after fact-checkers concluded the video footage Fiorina described did not exist, she doubled down on her claims in the days following the debate.
“I’ve seen the footage. And I find it amazing, actually, that all these supposed fact-checkers in the mainstream media claim this doesn’t exist. They’re trying to attack the authenticity of the videotape,” Fiorina told Fox News. “I will continue to dare anyone who wants to continue to fund Planned Parenthood, watch the videotapes.”
Fiorina’s campaign dismissed the notion that her candidacy may be stalling and the candidate has pointed to early state polls – which show her jockeying for third or fourth place in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – as a sign she has momentum.
Her fundraising has improved dramatically. Last quarter, Fiorina raised $6.8 million – a wide improvement from the $1.7 million she raised the previous quarter – and a larger sum than many of her Republican opponents.
“We’re really happy with the way things are going,” said Anna Epstein, a campaign spokeswoman, adding that voters are still in the process of getting to know Fiorina. “We’re still introducing her to as many people as we can. That’s definitely not over.”
Cullen, the former New Hampshire party chair, said a dip in the national polls wasn’t anything for the candidate to be concerned about.
“Look, she was an asterisk nine months ago,” Cullen said. “You have to zoom out a little bit more and say that Carly has been advancing for nine consecutive months. That’s just what you want to do.”
But at the first sign Fiorina was on the rise, the candidate faced an onslaught of scrutiny over her rocky tenure as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and her unsuccessful California Senate bid in 2010.
Her campaign and the super PAC supporting her – which has shouldered the responsibility for hosting events and organizing on the ground game – have struggled to craft a counter narrative to the criticism.
When asked whether the stories about her HP tenure and her Senate race were damaging Fiorina, Epstein said, “I don’t have anything to say about that right now.”
Katie Hughes, a spokeswoman for the super PAC supporting Fiorina, said, “Carly has a very successful record at HP and we’re thankful for the opportunity to promote it.”
But that record ultimately crippled her Senate bid. And while attacks on a candidate’s business record tend to be more effective in a general election than in a Republican primary, Fiorina will have to make her case to voters even as the cornerstone of her resume is under fire.
“Donald Trump has shown such a willingness to go after her on her business experiences, which is why she needs to make it more of a character question,” said Amanda Carpenter, a GOP strategist and former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz.
Carpenter’s advice: Fiorina should be blunt in contrasting her substantive style with Trump’s inclination toward insults and attacks.
“The more she can contrast that, saying I’m giving you substance, trust me, I am the better person against Donald Trump, she’ll do well,” Carpenter said. “She’s probably the most capable debater on that stage, in terms of going into a high-stakes environment and blowing out expectations.”
Once again, Fiorina’s best opportunity may be when Republicans face off on the debate stage again on October 28.
“I am looking forward to the debate because it is an opportunity, once again, for me to introduce myself to that 40% of people who don’t know anything about me,” Fiorina told reporters while she campaigned across Iowa on Friday.