Her name isn't registering at the top of the polls and she lacks the fundraising and organization of some of her Republican rivals. But if Wednesday night's debate made anything clear it was this: Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is a force to be reckoned with.
Fiorina, the lone woman in the GOP race, had already been on the rise in polls across the country since she stunned at the undercard Fox News debate in August. While her performance at the debate Wednesday night was full of barbs familiar from her stump speeches on the campaign trail and TV and radio interviews, they were fresh for the viewers that turned into the three-hour slugfest on CNN.
"Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment," Fiorina said Wednesday night, recycling a jab that she's used effectively on the campaign trail. (Clinton famously traveled 956,733 miles during her time as secretary of state.)
Fiorina's strong performance Wednesday night could boost her profile, making her more of a serious threat to her rivals.
Their challenge: to disarm her without coming across as sexist or bullying.
"I don't think candidates need to be tentative about confronting or challenging her. But if they are disrespectful or rude, it can come across as boorish," Katie Packer Gage, one of the founders of Burning Glass, which works with Republicans on their messaging to women, told Mashable. "So they always need to be respectful, which they should do anyway."
So much sexism directed at women candidates like @CarlyFiorinain in this race so far. We have got to do better: http://t.co/9aWncVA62d
— Jen Siebel Newsom (@JenSiebelNewsom) September 14, 2015
“They need to go out of their way to make sure that it doesn’t look like they’re bullying her,” Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University, told Mashable. “But she needs to look like she’s capable of being bullied.”
In Wednesday night's debate, Fiorina showcased her command of policy, her ability to pack a punch at the expense of her more popular rivals and a poise that, in particular, the current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump lacks.
To date, Trump has been Fiorina's chief antagonist: criticizing her business acumen and landing himself in hot water for making a comment that seemed to criticize her appearance. ("Look at that face," Trump reportedly said when watching Fiorina answer a question about him on television. "Would anyone vote for that?")
His broadsides against Fiorina are expected. On Wednesday night, the two spent some time talking over one another, competing to see who could cut the other's business record more quickly.
Ultimately though, it was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who stepped in, showing just how difficult it will be for the slew of male GOP candidates to attack the only woman in the field.
"Carly, listen," Christie reprimanded her. "You can interrupt everybody else on this stage. You're not going to interrupt me, O.K.?"
DID CHRIS CHRISTIE JUST MANSPLAIN INTERRUPTING TO CARLY OH WOW
— Emma Grundhauser (@emgrundy) September 17, 2015
Chris Christie with a sharp rebuke to Carly Fiorina – "You're not going to interrupt me." Risky. #NBC2016
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) September 17, 2015
Lawless chalked that comment up to “typical Chris Christie,” adding that “he would have said that to anybody.”
“But because of what happened with the Trump/Fiorina exchange the previous week, I think it had a gender undertone that might have otherwise been absent from that exchange,” she said.
The Fiorina campaign declined to comment, and Christie showed no signs of letting up come Thursday morning. In an interview with CNN, he said that Fiorina had talked too much about herself during the debate.
"She's got one place on the stage, not two or three," he said. "I'm happy to sit and listen to her but don't interrupt me and don't interrupt the other candidates."
Whoever wants to go after Fiorina next should tread cautiously, said Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.
“You can criticize her looks, you can criticize her appearance at HP, she’s going to have a response. She’s anticipating it all," Schaeffer told Mashable. “I don’t think she’s going to be bothered if someone attacks her. She’s going to be ready. She’s not going to be caught flat-footed.”
That was evident Wednesday night when Fiorina delivered a short, direct, relatable response when asked to comment on Trump's "persona," after his comments on her face.
"Women all over the country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," Fiorina said forcefully, to audience applause.
Trump's comments, Lawless said, “opened the door for her to say 'you shouldn’t treat me this way, the American women are on my side.'"
She said the Fiorina-Trump moment "makes it even more likely that these campaigns are having conversations behind the scenes about how to avoid their candidates saying anything that she could then call them out on."
Fiorina has made the case that if she becomes her party’s nominee, she would neutralize Democrat Hillary Clinton’s power to rally women. Before she launched her campaign in April, Fiorina argued that if Clinton were to face off against another woman in the general election “there are a whole set of things she won’t be able to talk about.”
Democrats, though, see Fiorina’s candidacy as a preview of how any Republican nominee will handle Clinton in the general election
Liberal political commentator Sally Kohn told Mashable that if Fiorina becomes the party’s perceived front runner, her male opponents will be “trying to knock Fiorina off the pedestal while simultaneously auditioning for the general election in showing they can take on a female opponent without being chauvinist oafs.”