It’s hard for any Republican to stand out in a presidential field of 17—certainly when an impossible-to-ignore loudmouth is hogging the spotlight, and especially when your big chance to shine in a debate comes during a glorified dress rehearsal airing when most voters are still at work.
But if anyone can be said to have won last week’s GOP doubleheader in Cleveland, it’s Carly Fiorina. While Donald Trump has spent the last few days insisting he didn’t make a crude reference to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle, Fiorina has leapfrogged several of her fellow also-rans in the national and state polls taken since the debate. Relegated to the “Happy Hour” debate last Thursday, the former HP executive may not have been facing off against the cream of the GOP crop, but she came off as poised and self-assured, speaking cogently on policy and landing a few well-timed zingers that would have hit even harder had she not been speaking to an empty theater. Fiorina followed up her debate performance with a solid showing at Erick Erickson’s RedState Gathering, and she’s been a fixture on the Sunday and morning news shows in the days since.
Lest we get carried away, Fiorina’s rise is—for now—something well short of a surge. She has advanced safely beyond the land of the 1 percent in polling, and she appears well-positioned to take a spot in the top-tier debate when Republicans converge on the Reagan Library next month. But she has yet to top 10 percent in either a national survey or in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which show her trailing Trump and three or four other candidates. As Politico’s Katie Glueck observed, many people at the RedState convention said they liked Fiorina, but few said she was their first choice for the nomination. On policy, she has stayed well within the bounds of traditional conservative orthodoxy.