Last night was Carly Fiorina’s first face-off against the big names of the Republican race for president, and she killed it. During the three-hour free-for-all, most candidates tried to stand out while trading insults with Donald Trump, but Fiorina stayed cool and collected. Why was the former Hewlett-Packard CEO the big debate winner? Fiorina came into the debate with a few major advantages, and she made the most of every single one of them. For starters, it was her second chance to make a first impression with the American public. Fiorina was still relatively unknown before last night, but her performance in August's second-tier candidate debate gave her enough of a boost to make it to the main event this time.
Many of Fiorina’s talking points were identical to what she said back in August — her answers on the military, U.S.-Iran relations, and her business record were essentially word-for-word — but she looked confident, stayed on message, and had a ton of details to deploy, which is more than we can say for every other candidate on stage. While Trump dodged everyone's attempts to make him get specific, Fiorina laid out plans for expanding the military, all the way down to the exact ships she wanted to buy. And during a discussion of drug policy, she spoke candidly and personally: "Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people. I know this sadly from personal experience," she said. Women voters have the power to determine the entire election, and it’s undeniably exciting to watch a woman appear smarter and more capable than her opponents. And, on the topic of gender, Fiorina won the debate the moment she got asked about Donald Trump, who infamously insulted her looks in a Rolling Stone profile published last week. Her response was stone cold awesome. After weeks of watching nationally known candidates sink in the polls as Trump rose on a tide of anti-immigrant vitriol and personal attacks on his male opponents, the country was waiting for someone to put the reality star in his place. “It’s interesting to me that Mr. Trump said he heard Mr. Bush very clearly," Fiorina said of an earlier exchange between Trump and Jeb Bush. "Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." No other candidate has been able to shut Trump down as effectively as she did in those two sentences, and that will get her a lot of fans. According to data from Crowdtangle, it already has: Fiorina gained 9,000 new Facebook fans and as many Twitter followers last night. “I was very satisfied,” Fiorina told George Stephanopoulos Thursday morning. “When I went into the debate, almost half the audience didn’t know my name, and I introduced myself successfully.” The primary race is still in its early stages — we have 10 more GOP debates to go, and months before the first primary vote is cast, so Fiorina’s rise means she’ll soon face the sort of scrutiny that comes with being the new hope to dethrone Trump. But perception beats reality in these debates, so even though Fiorina made some downright false claims last night (most notably about Planned Parenthood), she will certainly have some more wins as the primaries roll on.