The decision by CNN on Tuesday to relax the criteria for its prime-time Republican presidential debate on Sept. 16 was a victory for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who was widely considered to be the clear winner of the “kids' table” debate last month in Cleveland. And while CNN’s move has been framed as a concession to Fiorina, the decision—which could theoretically lead to more than 10 candidates on stage, making the kids' table an even more depressing place than last time—also seems to be a concession to fundamental fairness. Relying on outdated polls, like CNN was going to do before changing its rules, belies the notion of having a debate in the first place. Fiorina has surged in recent weeks and deserves to be on the main stage. Now she will be.
It is worth noting, though, that the prime-time debate presents far different challenges than the secondary one. At the first kids' table debate in Cleveland, Fiorina stood out for her brashness and poise, in large part because there was no one on stage to steal the spotlight from her. It’s not particularly difficult to divert attention away from former New York Governor George Pataki or former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore. But with the whole world watching—and if the Donald Trump-goosed ratings of the first debate are any indication, there will be a shockingly high percentage of the world watching—a lot of the tricks Fiorina used in the first debate might not work as well this time. Here’s a look at the successful tactics she used in Cleveland that she’s going to have to adjust, or abandon all together, in Simi Valley.
1. Play off Lindsey Graham and the other yokels on stage
Fiorina’s ability to deliver a shiv with a smile was her signature maneuver in Cleveland. She went after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with equal gusto, but she looked composed doing so, unlike Graham, who delivered his usual apocalyptic, we-must-crush-terrorism-under-our-boot message with his usual jarring Andy Griffith vibe. (The South Carolina senator is the least threatening war-monger since Scrappy-Doo.) Fiorina was able to look tough, in large part, because everyone around her looked so weak. Whatever your thoughts on the current Republican top 10, she won’t be the only one capable of conjuring a steely gaze without inspiring giggles.
2. Ignore everyone else on stage
The few people who did watch the first kids' table debate did so largely as pseudo-talent scouts, seeing a way to determine whether any candidate could potentially get the call up to the bigs at the next debate. This gave Fiorina a small bar to clear; the only other real takeaways from that afternoon were “Rick Perry is trying so hard this time, the poor guy” and “the winner of the ‘pick a random person off the street and let him on stage’ contest is Jim Gilmore.” Thus, Fiorina really never needed to engage anyone else on stage. While that night’s affairs had some spirited back-and-forths—notably between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Trump and everyone—Fiorina was able to address the camera, and the audience at home, directly. She might as well have been giving a private speech. There will no such soundproof booths this time.
3. Be the only real non-politician
For all the jokes made about the kids' table roster, most of the candidates were still legitimate public figures: The governor of Louisiana, the former governor of Texas, the senior senator from South Carolina, the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses. This allowed a sharp contrast for Fiorina: Over there are the career politicians; I’m a successful businesswoman. Part of the reason for Fiorina's recent rise is that she is not considered an establishment politician. She has been riding the same wave as Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in that regard. But in Simi Valley, those men will be standing on the stage as she is. Can Fiorina—who is only considered a non-politician because she lost, resoundingly, the only race she’s ever run—pull off the outsider vibe with those two on stage?
4. Go after Trump
The nighttime debate in Cleveland was full of people punching Trump—moderators, other candidates, sometimes Trump himself—and the daytime debate was a far more sedate affair. Only Perry, desperate to look tougher and more pragmatic on border security than Trump, and Fiorina went after him with much vigor. Fiorina, like with everything else, was more effective than Perry at this, at one point going so far as to connect Trump to former President Bill Clinton, the horror. She doubled down on the Trump criticism the next day.
Now, this was easier for Fiorina in Cleveland because Trump wasn’t standing right there, ready with one of his boorish, bullying, and typically effective insult-comedy comebacks. But going after Trump won’t be so simple this time, not just because he’ll be a few podiums over but also because the Trump dynamic is one every other candidate will be wrestling with as well. “How do I deal with Trump?” was the central question of the main debate in Cleveland, and it’s one that Fiorina, at the breakthrough moment of her campaign so far, didn’t have to deal with.
Another Trump bind for Fiorina: Does she really want to go after Trump at all? After all, they are currently two peas in the same “throw out the established politicians” pod. Their poll numbers are high for some of the same reasons. Other than Trump’s well-documented woman problem—one that, it must be said, tends to show up more in the media than it does in the polls—Fiorina and Trump are sort of more natural allies at this stage of the campaign than combatants. It might be in Fiorina’s best interests not to go after Trump.
But then, after coming after him so hard last month, how can she? Will it look like she’s only backing down because now he’s standing right there? Trump is a wooly beast in the room with whom all candidates have had to reckon. Fiorina has had a free pass on this so far. Now, she, as the sole female candidate and as one of his fiercest critics, may find him the trickiest minefield of all.
5. Leave her notes lying around
Seriously, Carly, let’s try to be mindful this time.