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Fiorina debate stage challenge: How to deal with Trump

After weeks of building tension between Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, CNN’s Sept. 16 presidential debate could be the setting where the feud boils over. 

Fiorina had been relegated to the Aug. 6 “happy hour” debate on Fox News with other Republican candidates who were polling low. Now, thanks to surging poll numbers from that performance and changes to CNN’s rules, she will graduate to the prime-time stage this time around. 

{mosads}That means more people will see her — 24 million viewers tuned into the Fox News prime-time debate, about four times as many as tuned in to see Fiorina shine earlier in the day. But it also means she’ll come face to face with Trump. 

“Being on the main stage is a huge positive for her,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “She’ll be able to present herself to voters and donors in a way she hasn’t been able to before and potentially secure a position among the top tier of candidates. But it will also put her squarely in Donald Trump’s crosshairs.” 

Some Republicans think Fiorina should be the aggressor and pick a fight with the front-runner. 

“She’s the single biggest threat to him on the debate stage and should go after him,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak “She’s confident and willing to say what needs to be said. It could get into his head. Plus, it will put her squarely in the middle of the conversation and get replayed for hours on end. The upside to her winning that exchange could be tremendous.” 

The feud began at the first debate, when Fiorina needled Trump over news that former President Clinton had personally called him before he entered the race. 

“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” Fiorina said. “Maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the [Clinton] Foundation.” 

Several days after the debate, Fiorina ripped Trump for disparaging comments he made about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Trump believes he was treated unfairly by Kelly at the debate, and said in an interview that you could see “blood coming from her eyes, coming from her wherever.” 

“Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse,” Fiorina tweeted.

Fiorina later excoriated Trump on several news shows, saying women were “horrified” by what they were hearing from the real estate mogul and reality TV star.

While Trump has delighted in hitting back at other candidates who have attacked him, he has engaged cautiously with Fiorina. 

So far, he has seemed bemused by her attacks, warning her to tone it down and saying he won’t return fire so as not to be “accused of being tough on women.” 

In fact, at a press conference on Thursday, Trump welcomed Fiorina to the debate stage and said her arrival was well-deserved.

“Trump has not been going after his fellow outsiders … but Fiorina has been going after him,” said Republican strategist David Payne. “She must continue [to go after him] in order to capture the anti-establishment vote, pointing out that conservatives have an alternative to Trump, who isn’t one to begin with.” 

Still, Trump will be sitting on his own potent line of attack should Fiorina engage. At a New Hampshire campaign rally last month, Trump went on an extended riff about how he would go after Fiorina if he were inclined to do so. 

“I promised I wouldn’t say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground,” Trump said. “I said I would not say it. That her stock value tanked. That she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I would not say it. And that she then went out and ran against Barbara Boxer for senator of California, and it’s a race that should have been won, and she lost in a landslide, and I said, I will not say that, OK? So I’m not going to say it.”

Republicans believe Fiorina will be ready to answer those critiques. 

On Hewlett-Packard, Republicans say that being the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company remains a selling point and that Fiorina has been able to redirect the spotlight to areas of innovation and growth within the company while dismissing her firing as the result of a nasty boardroom fight during a tough time for tech companies. 

Regarding the 2010 Senate race Fiorina lost by 10 points to incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Republicans say she ran as an unapologetic conservative who outperformed other Republicans on the ballot in a deep blue state where few expected her to win. 

Regardless, Republicans say Fiorina will be walking a tightrope in her first major introduction to voters as works to craft a narrative for herself while engaging with her rivals. 

Being on stage with the front-runners will legitimize Fiorina’s efforts in the minds of many voters and donors, Republicans say. 

“This will be the first time many voters see her in the same context with these other leading candidates,” said Republican pollster David Winston, a veteran of Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign. 

The competition will be more skilled and the moderators unpredictable. One of the anchors will be conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who has elicited stumbles from several GOP candidates already this cycle by asking quiz-style questions and going deep into the weeds on foreign policy. 

In addition, as the 11th of 11 candidates on stage, it will be more difficult for Fiorina to stand out. She’s likely to get less speaking time than she did at the first debate, and the crowd of big personalities will make it more difficult for her to leave a mark.

“It’s going to be a huge moment for her and a big opportunity,” Winston said. “She should take some risks in how she approaches this, and yes, she should engage with Trump. But she also needs to be careful, because at the end of the day that’s only one piece of it. It’s also going to be about setting the narrative and making the case for herself to be president. She did that at the last debate. We’ll see if she can do it again.”

Tags Carly Fiorina CNN debate Donald Trump

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