Carly Fiorina, the only consensus winner out of this week’s GOP presidential debate, went a long way toward cementing her claim as Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare, as she looked to solidify her status as a top contender for the party’s nomination and convince donors and primary voters to give her a serious look.
Ms. Fiorina scored a slew of headlines for shutting down Donald J. Trump in the second prime-time Republican debate, but GOP analysts and supporters said the stinging blows she directed at Mrs. Clinton could prove to be more valuable to her chances of being on the party’s ticket come the 2016 election.
“Carly Fiorina is the one Republican Hillary Clinton hopes she never has to face because Carly Fiorina can take on Hillary Clinton in ways that the men in gray suits and red ties can’t,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist who is advising Ms. Fiorina.
Before the debate, Ms. Fiorina, 61, had elbowed her way into the middle of the pack of 16 candidates, and she is expected to get another bounce after outshining most of her rivals in a three-hour affair at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, hosted by CNN, which drew nearly 23 million viewers.
From the outset of her campaign, Ms. Fiorina has trained her fire on Mrs. Clinton, and she came prepared to do more of the same in the second debate, delivering another stinging critique of the former first lady.
“Mrs. Clinton has to defend her track record,” Ms. Fiorina said. “Her track record of lying about Benghazi, of lying about her emails, about lying about her servers. She does not have a track record of accomplishment.”
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“Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know flying is an activity, not an accomplishment,” she said. “If you want to stump a Democrat, ask them to name an accomplishment of Mrs. Clinton’s.”
As she rises, Ms. Fiorina is expected to face more scrutiny over the record she compiled between 1999 and 2005 as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which some, including Mr. Trump and Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, have cast in a negative light.
“The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster. They still haven’t recovered,” Mr. Trump said during the debate.
The Democratic National Committee blasted out an email Thursday saying that thousands of HP workers lost their jobs on Ms. Fiorina’s watch, while she walked away with $40 million in cash, stock options and pensions. They also highlighted independent fact checkers that found Ms. Fiorina had been misleading about her business record and “cherry-picked” details that cast her time in a positive light.
“Nothing Carly Fiorina will say can excuse the horrible choices she made at HP or the falsehoods she peddled at last night’s debate. This is going to be one very awkward job interview for her,” said Holly Shulman, a DNC spokeswoman.
That same line of attack was successfully used against Ms. Fiorina in her failed 2010 bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
Ms. Fiorina also could come under fire from conservatives on immigration. She has said she is open to granting a pathway to legal status for adult illegal immigrants and a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
But Ned Ryun, a senior political adviser to the Carly for American super PAC, said the debate Wednesday gave the audience the chance to recognize that Ms. Fiorina has the “it” factor and grasp of the policy issues, as well as the skills to think quickly on her feet and clearly communicate her message to voters.
“She has the ability to take a punch and hit back even harder,” Mr. Ryun said. “I think Carly would eviscerate Hillary in any debate, in any setting, anywhere.
“After last night’s debate, I think Hillary Clinton is going to be looking in her closet every night, making sure that Carly is not lurking in the shadows,” he said.
Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist, said Ms. Fiorina has “absolutely” launched the most effective attacks against Mrs. Clinton, who is engulfed in an ongoing national security-tinged email scandal that is taking some of the steam out of her campaign.
“From Day One she has been the one person who has been talking about Clinton, while everyone else has been talking about Obama,” Mr. Carney said, adding that Ms. Fiorina can help diffuse the “war on women” charges that Democrats will inevitably turn to.
“Hillary can’t play the victim card against her, and the only way that Hillary has a shot of winning is that if she is seen as a victim and women are victims,” Mr. Carney said.
An IJ.com and Google Consumer Surveys nationwide post-debate poll found that 30 percent of debate viewers said Ms. Fiorina was the winner, followed by 23 percent for Mr. Trump and about 12 percent for Ben Carson.
The survey showed that Ms. Fiorina steamrolled her rivals among women, but that Mr. Trump ran neck and neck with her among men, fueling some speculation about whether she might have to do more to reach out to men.
It became apparent early in the debate Wednesday that Ms. Fiorina came poised to avoid a frontal attack on Mr. Trump when she refused to take the bait when moderator Jake Trapper asked about whether she trusted the New York billionaire with his finger on the nuclear codes.
She instead said that all of the candidates’ abilities with be “revealed over time and under pressure.”
But she pounced when asked to respond to remarks Mr. Trump made in a Rolling Stone interview, where, referring to her, he said, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Ms. Fiorina said, sparking a raucous applause from the crowd.
Ms. Fiorina said that stripping federal funding for Planned Parenthood is “about the character of our nation” and shared the story of how “my husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction.” She also vowed to cut off communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin and rebuild the missile defense system in Poland.
Democrats complimented Ms. Fiorina for her performance, though they warned that the political novice would likely be outmatched in a one-on-one matchup with Mrs. Clinton, who has done more for women’s issues.
“Compared to the sophomoric display of many of her Republican competitors, Fiorina came off like a pro — composed, substantive, unflappable,” said Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist.
“In particular, her responses to Trump’s attacks on her face ‘persona’ probably had women across both parties cheering her on,” Ms. Setzer said. “But tone isn’t the be-all and end-all. Women are unlikely to overlook Fiorina’s opposition to paid parental leave or her disastrous performance at HP in the final calculations.”