DES MOINES, Iowa — Carly Fiorina’s standout performance in the first undercard GOP primary debate made her a contender. Her strong showing in the second prime-time debate bumped her to a leading candidate. Now, with slowing poll numbers, Fiorina is again looking to the debate stage for a burst of energy.
The former technology executive joins nine other 2016 Republican presidential candidates in Colorado today. After the last debate, Fiorina saw her poll numbers and fundraising soar, though she has struggled to maintain the momentum. The third debate presents an opportunity to pick up speed, which may not be easy.
GOP consultant Katie Packer said Fiorina had few expectations of her in the first two debates. “She had a real opportunity to shine,” Packer said. “Now, it’s a little bit of a different challenge. The challenge is going to be to perform at the same level as at the last one.”
Fiorina’s polling numbers have dipped recently, though she remains comfortably in the top tier. Since the last debate, she has dropped somewhat from view and has not gotten the media attention that Donald Trump and Ben Carson have enjoyed at the front of the pack. Her campaign says she has been hard at work in the first four voting states and is prepared to go the distance.
Fiorina’s Iowa campaign chairman Christopher Rants said Fiorina would continue introducing herself to voters Wednesday. He said: “She just needs to be Carly. She just needs to be who she is. Give substantive answers to tough questions.”
Given that Fiorina has risen in the ranks and has displayed strong debate skills, she may have to deal with tough questioning from moderators or fellow candidates, particularly about her business record as former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, where she led a major merger, laid off 30,000 workers and was ousted by the board.
If she has a good night, experts said, Fiorina must seek to keep building the enthusiasm, which can be challenging with a smaller campaign. Compared with other Republican candidates, Fiorina has a small operation. In Iowa, for example, she has two paid staffers, compared with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has 10.
“It’s like catching lightning in a bottle,” said Republican pollster Greg Strimple. “When it strikes you have to be ready for it.”
Fiorina saw contributions to her campaign leap immediately after both GOP debates, according to an Associated Press analysis of individual donors who gave at least $200 in the latest election cycle. Smaller donors aren’t required to be identified.
Recent campaign finance reports show that Fiorina raised about $3.5 million in donations of $200 or more between July 1 and Sept. 30. About 14 percent of those contributions came in on the two days following the debates. Fiorina got a bigger next-day bump each time than anyone else in the field.
“To be able to win an election you have to be able to come across on television,” said Stanley Hubbard, a billionaire media mogul from Minneapolis who had previously supported Scott Walker’s campaign. “She does very well on television.” He said he contributed to Fiorina’s campaign after seeing her in the second debate and has also given to Bush, Carson, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie.
Fiorina commanded the first half of that debate, serving as one of the strongest foils to Trump. She won the night’s first big ovation when she addressed his insulting comments about her personal appearance days earlier, saying “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
But she made provocative comments of her own, misrepresenting the content of secretly recorded videos about Planned Parenthood fetal-tissue practices and refusing since to own up to the error.
During the latest fundraising quarter, Fiorina raised a total of $6.8 million. That’s quadruple what she collected in the previous period.
Fiorina is already trying to encourage support around the next debate. A message to supporters on the campaign’s Facebook page reads: “Wednesday’s debate is going to be another huge moment for this campaign.”
It continues: “Chip in $3 to make sure Carly’s message continues to resonate in the days and weeks after the next debate.”