By Ben Kamisar - 10/25/15 06:00 AM EDT
Carly Fiorina needs a strong performance in Wednesday night's debate to give her campaign a jump-start after a recent slide at the polls.
Fiorina has twice benefitted from well-received debate showings—her Sept. 16 performance vaulted her from an afterthought in a crowded field to second and third place finishes both nationally and in Iowa polls. And her success in August’s first GOP debate allowed her to jump from the undercard to the main stage.
“The debate is essential because without a good debate performance she’s history,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, who writes a column for The Hill.
“She’s very dependent of the glare of the debates to give her credibility, so she’s going to need this next debate for that precise reason.”
Strategists agree about the importance of a strong performance during the Oct. 28 debate, but say that even more importantly, she must follow that up by spending in key states and going on the attack to maintain any post-debate bump.
Fiorina’s campaign knows that it all starts with the debate stage. It sent out a fundraising email pitch Friday afternoon attributed to the candidate that calls the debate “critical” to “building this campaign’s momentum.”
“Wednesday's debate is going to be another monumental moment for this campaign,” she wrote.
“But we can't maximize its impact in the critical days that follow, unless I can count on your help now.”
Her campaign took in about $1.5 million in donations in the two weeks after her lauded September debate performance, almost as much as it raised during the entire second quarter.
Strategists say Fiorina needs to find a balance between keeping that national profile high enough to keep that fundraising spigot going while also prioritizing the early states where she needs to build a deep support system.
“She’s largely faded away from the national conversation because she’s not taking on Trump in a controversial way or trying to grab the headlines,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said.
“What it looks like she’s trying to do is put down a foundation of support in some of these states, which I think has caused a reduction in her national poll numbers.”
Two places where strategists and supporters believe she can be uniquely effective is continuing to hammer Hillary Clinton, fresh off the heels of her Benghazi Committee testimony, and Planned Parenthood, as the House begins to assemble a select committee to investigate its practices.
Many also note her success during the last debate at taking on Donald Trump, a place where most candidates have failed.
“She’s going to have to do something proactively. If that means start taking shots at the other people, that’s going to happen,” Reed Galen, a California-based GOP strategist said.
Fiorina spent months polling in the low single digits, so her supporters point to the overall improvement and her current standing in Iowa and New Hampshire as proof of the campaign’s health.
She’s in fifth place in Iowa, alongside former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.), and sixth place in New Hampshire, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polls.
“In the states that have the early primaries, she is very effective,” said Susan Combs, the former Texas comptroller who has backed Fiorina.
“People believe she’s got intestinal fortitude and a backbone of steel.”
Iowa State Sen. David Johnson, another Fiorina supporter, said she has to “knock down the door in Iowa.”
“The early states are the most important, so the national polls don’t really concern me,” he added. “I just want to see her getting out as much as possible and meeting voters.”
Fiorina’s strong third-quarter fundraising haul brought her into the mix with other candidates, but she has still spent millions less than her GOP rivals in the costly game of building out a major early-state staff and getting her message on the airwaves.
Galen believes that spending should kick up in the months before the Iowa caucuses to build a network that can convert enthusiasm into tangible support, especially considering she doesn’t have ownership over a natural base of support like some rivals.
But it’s not all about strict spending.
“Huckabee and Santorum didn’t win because they had the most money, they won because they went to all 99 counties and energized evangelicals. But who is she organizing?” he said of the former Arkansas governor and Pennsylvania senator who won each of the past two Iowa caucuses.
He also cautioned against counting Fiorina out after falling back from her post-debate high.
“It’s just four points, we’ve seen she has the ability to grow,” he said.
“Her ability to go from 7 up to 11, to 7 up to 20, is probably better than Donald Trump’s ability to go from 25 to 35.”