Indeed, this is the role Fiorina sought.
Clinton "will play the gender card over and over again, which is unfortunate but predictable," Fiorina told National Journal's Nancy Cook recently.
"Democrats play identity politics," she said. "It's dismissive of women; it's insulting to women. It's inaccurate in the supposed facts that it lays out. Democrats think identity politics has worked, and unfortunately, they have a lot of evidence to support that it works. So, we have to push back hard."
Not many male candidates will be so eager to take on gender politics this cycle. They are being advised to tread cautiously. "There's a natural hesitance from male candidates when they're running against a woman to be too aggressive, because if they've run against a woman, they've probably been burned by this before," says Katie Packer Gage, who was Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager in 2012 and is now a partner at the GOP firm Burning Glass Consulting.
Gage and Burning Glass are working on Republican messaging strategies, drafting guidance on the best ways for the party to criticize Clinton in 2016. "I think the other candidates are going to have to figure out how they walk that line where they effectively go after Hillary on her legitimate weaknesses—without coming across like "¦ some kind of bully," says Gage.
(RELATED: I Underestimated Carly Fiorina. Here's How.)
And this cycle wouldn't be the first time a male candidate faced that charge when competing against Clinton. In 2000, her opponent for the Senate, Rick Lazio, walked across the debate stage with a piece of paper in hand and tried to get her to sign a pledge against soft money. The move backfired, making Lazio look like a bully. "Some of these Republican men seem almost fearful of having their own Rick Lazio moment," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.
But Fiorina's not just playing bad cop for the good of her team. She's purposely avoiding the intra-party sniping that voters so often find petty and instead gaining attention for saying things others won't. And through this, she aims to build a brand that will keep her in this contest a lot longer than most pundits predict.
"It's her strategy that she came up with. She thinks it's right, but it also gets her the attention," says GOP strategist Charlie Black. The aim, he adds, is to "get her enough coverage that, in the debates, people pay attention to her "¦ because she will do extremely well in the debates."
If she gets to the debates. Certainly, gaining traction now could help Fiorina garner enough support to qualify, and that's something that even Republicans who are leaning toward or actively backing other candidates say they'd like to see.
"Carly is going to acquit herself well on a debate stage," says Ned Ryun, a board member of the American Conservative Union and founder of the group American Majority. "People are going to say, 'We want her to be in longer just to be part of a debate.'"Š" (At CPAC, Fiorina also made reference to her debate chops, albeit in the general election: "If Hillary Clinton had to face me on a debate stage, at the very least she would have a hitch in her swing," she said.)