Fiorina Seen as Big Winner in GOP Debate

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Carly Fiorina takes part in the GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library on Sept. 16, 2015 in Simi Valley. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Yesterday, before last night's Republican free-for-all, NPR wrote that Carly Fiorina would need to "stand out, not just stick out" on the debate stage.

Well, that she did, at least according to most media assessments. "For First Time, Trump Shrinks In Spotlight; Fiorina Steals Show," avers today's NPR headline. "Carly Does It Again," reads a post on RealClearPolitics. "Carly Fiorina Gains Traction in Debate, Helping G.O.P. Reach Out to Women," leads the New York Times.

The first poll on the debate is now out: In a survey of 1,337 Republicans around the country, Gravis Marketing found 33 percent thought Fiorina won, followed by Trump at 21 percent. The poll also showed her tied with Trump for the lead in the overall nomination race, with 22 percent each.

Not bad for a candidate who lost her last election bid, to Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010, by 10 percentage points. The most buzzworthy moment of last night's debate occurred when Fiorina was asked to respond to Trump's insulting comments in Rolling Stone about, literally, her face,  the kind of remarks unacceptable in most present-day grade schools. (Note: Trump later claimed  he was talking only about her "persona." Another note: Um-hmmh.)

Fiorina, of course, was prepared for the question, but she also appeared to nimbly improvise an answer, integrating something that had just occurred onstage. "You know, it's interesting to me," Fiorina said. "Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly in what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."

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Wild applause followed. Trump then appeared to remain unclear on the concept of what's going on here when he immediately attempted to make nice: "I think she's got a beautiful face and I think she's a beautiful woman," he said, in a moment that probably failed to induce an appreciative "awww" from most of the women watching.

Perhaps more relevant locally was the set-to between Trump and Fiorina regarding their business credentials, ostensibly indicative of the leadership abilities qualifying them to run for president. It can't have been considered good timing by the Fiorina camp that Hewlett Packard, where she eliminated many jobs as CEO during her five-year tenure, announced plans for 30,000  more layoffs on Wednesday, the day before the debate.  Trump went after Fiorina's stewardship of HP, and she responded in kind by criticizing his own business record. NPR fact-checked both sets of claims today:

Claim 1 — Trump: Fiorina's management of HP "led to the destruction of the company"

There were a lot of sparks between the two CEOs on stage — Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump. Trump went after Fiorina's record as a business executive, especially the five years she spent as head of Hewlett-Packard about a decade ago:

"Today, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, they fired another 25- or 30,000 people, saying we still haven't recovered from the catastrophe. When Carly says the revenues went up, that's because she bought Compaq, it was a terrible deal, and it really led to the destruction of the company. Now one other company before that was Lucent. Carly was at Lucent before that. And Lucent turned out to be a catastrophe also. So I'll only say this — she can't run any of my companies."

Fiorina's track record at HP was certainly controversial. The company cut about 30,000 jobs during her tenure, and when Fiorina herself was fired in 2005, she got a severance package worth more than $20 million.

The merger with Compaq also put her at odds with some people at HP, including the son of the founder, Walter Hewlett. In her defense, Fiorina notes that her tenure was a wrenching time for the whole industry — the tech bubble had just burst, and while HP continues to struggle, many other iconic companies from that period went out of business altogether.

As Fiorina noted during the debate, she's won the endorsement of a former HP board member, who says they were wrong to get rid of her.

Claim 2 — Fiorina: Trump was "forced to file for bankruptcy ... four times"

Fiorina gave as good as she got last night, taking direct aim at Trump's own business record:

"There are a lot of us Americans who believe that we're going to have trouble someday paying back the interest on our debt. Because politicians have run up mountains of debt using other people's money. That is, in fact, precisely the way you ran your casinos. You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people's money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy not once, not twice — four times."

Trump protested during that charge, saying he never filed for bankruptcy. He means he never filed for personal bankruptcy. But Fiorina is correct when she says Trump corporations turned to bankruptcy court four different times to reorganize their debts.

Trump has defended that as perfectly legal under the bankruptcy code — and it is. Most of the bankruptcies were tied to Trump casinos in Atlantic City. The debts were restructured, and Trump's ownership stake was whittled down.

Like Fiorina, he insists context is important, saying just about every casino operator in Atlantic City has struggled and that the bankruptcies represent a small fraction of the many business deals he's done.

Polls -- lots of polls -- should be forthcoming. Should Fiorina gain a wider following, more attacks criticizing her leadership of HP will surely follow. The San Francisco Chronicle's Carla Marinucci alluded to this in a piece on Sunday, in which she revealed the contents of a 218-page opposition report from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in April 2010.

There are hundreds of news stories, commentaries and data sets outlining what probably will be Fiorina’s lingering vulnerabilities. They include accounts of her turbulent stint as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, where “Chainsaw Carly” cut 30,000 workers while, critics said, outsourcing thousands of American jobs before taking a golden parachute. And there’s the tale of how during her tenure, an HP subsidiary sold printers to Iran, bucking the trade embargo. Fiorina, who denied knowing about the sales, has harshly criticized the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal.

“The playbook to beat Carly Fiorina was written, executed — and it worked,” said a leading GOP operative who now works for a rival Republican presidential campaign and spoke on condition of anonymity. When Fiorina made her political debut in 2010, “Republicans fared pretty well and Republicans were all rooting for Carly,” the strategist said. “But the opposition research against her, and her record at HP, was just devastating in the campaign.”

You can read the document below. It includes chapter headlines like "Carly Fiorina: One of the Worst CEOs," "Fiorina Left HP With Millions of Dollars and with 28,000 Workers Unemployed," and one that should be coming to a talking point near you any moment: "Fiorina Took Meeting at Strip Club."

View this document on Scribd

Update: A controversy has emerged over Fiorina's debate comments about the controversial undercover Planned Parenthood videos. Fiorina said about the tapes, "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'"

Wrote fact-checking site PolitiFact: "Fiorina’s claim makes it sound like there is actual footage of Planned Parenthood examining an aborted fetus whose heart is still beating, while someone says 'we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' There isn't."

The site goes on to say Fiorina was probably talking about a video in which a woman is interviewed who is identified as Holly O'Donnell, a former procurement technician for a biomedical company that had worked with Planned Parenthood to collect tissue for medical research.

O’Donnell talks about a time when she saw a fully-formed aborted fetus, with its heart still beating, in a pathology lab at a California Planned Parenthood clinic while she was on a job.

"I’m sitting here looking at this fetus, and its heart is beating, and I don’t know what to think," O’Donnell said. According to O’Donnell, her supervisor then told her they would procure the brain because the fetus was well-preserved.

The Center for Medical Progress video does not actually show footage of O’Donnell’s experience, and there’s nothing else in the video to corroborate O’Donnell’s story. Additionally, the supervisor in O’Donnell’s story does not say anything about keeping the fetus alive specifically for the purpose of harvesting the brain.

To dramatize O’Donnell’s interview, the video cuts to a fetus outside the womb, placed on what appears to be some sort of examination surface, and the fetus’ legs are moving. The Center for Medical Progress says the source of the footage is the Grantham Collection, an organization that hopes to stem abortion by promoting graphic images of the procedure. We don’t know the circumstances behind this video: where it came from, under what conditions it was obtained, or even if this fetus was actually aborted (as opposed to a premature birth or miscarriage).

PolitiFact judged Fiorina's claim to be "Mostly False."

In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos today, Fiorina stood by her description of what she saw in the video.