With much of the attention on the main GOP debate stage last night, where political outsider Donald Trump and nine others formed the biggest presidential debate field in U.S. history, it was another self-avowed "Washington Outsider" who stole the show in the preliminary 5 pm debate hosted by Fox News in Cleveland, Ohio: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only female candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential field so far.
Seven different candidates were relegated to the undercard debate by not polling quite high enough to qualify for the 10-person field that made the prime time debate later in the evening. (This methodology, at least at this very early stage in the nomination process, has come under criticism; the difference between the polling results of candidates like Fiorina and former Texas governor Rick Perry and the 9th and 10th place finishers (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich) was actually less than the margin of error of those polls used.
Playing Nice at the "Kid's Table"
Unlike the prime time debate held at 9 pm, the preliminary session held beforehand was characterized more by the candidates stating their case for president in brief orations that more resembled announcements of their candidacies than any kind of debate-style showdown. In addition to Forina and Perry, the group included Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham; former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum; former New York governor George Pitaki; and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore.
Candidates spent much less time attacking one another than they did focusing on the presumptive nominee from the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton. In many respects, the so-called "Kiddie Table" seemed to stay far more focused on their message than on the perceived inadequacies of their potential primary opponents. In this sense, the earlier debate (more of a forum) did well to avoid the divisiveness that has strained the unity of the GOP—and is well-represented by Trump.
After a strong performance in which she asserted that she is dedicated to, and capable of, "lead[ing] the resurgence of this great nation," many are speculating the Fiorina will be included in the main stage at the next debate. She received glowing reviews from several Republican strategists, and could bring some balance to the field as both a candidate from the business world and the only woman on the GOP side.
There are several reasons to believe that Mrs. Fiorina will continue to be a strong candidate going forward. She has extensive experience as a business executive, and although she's never held political office, this in some ways works to her advantage as a new face with a fresh perspective. Moreover, her impressive career in the private sector has actually brought her into direct contact with more foreign leaders from around the world than any of the other candidates in the field (excluding Clinton).
In all likelihood, Fiorina will be embraced throughout the primary process by her fellow Republicans, not only because of her strong credentials, but because the American electorate remains desperate for a candidate that does not come directly from the political establishment.