Mark J. Terrill/AP

Here's Why Carly Fiorina Was the Consensus Debate Winner

The only female candidate on the GOP debate stage proved she could hang with the boys—but also represent “women all over this country.”

Carly Fiorina stood out on the GOP debate stage last night in large part because she, well, literally stood out. The sole female candidate, the royal blue in a sea of obligatory black, handily won the debate, and that is largely because she skillfully exploited the thing that is both her biggest liability and, potentially, her biggest asset: She’s a woman.

On the one hand: The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard—who has made a point, inher previous public-persona-ing, of selling herself as a boys-club buster—spent much of her speaking time last night proving that she could also fit in with the boys. She adopted a commanding, no-nonsense stage presence. She took a condemnatory tone when discussing—and condemning the contents of—the Planned Parenthood videos. She demonstrated a deep working knowledge, if not a deep understanding, of the U.S. military. (The many mentions of missile defense! The many more mentions of the Sixth Fleet!)

These are moves—the projection of authority, the marshaling of the martial—that are, of course, adopted pretty much wholesale from the Hillary Clinton handbook. But Fiorina made another Clintonian play last night, too: She took advantage of her presence as the only woman on the debate stage to frame herself, specifically, as a representative of women. Not just Republican women, or white women, or businesswomen, or middle-aged women … but women, full stop. Women “all over this country.”

Take the response she gave to the question about the inclusion of a woman on the U.S. currency. While other candidates gave answers that ranged from the expected (“Rosa Parks,” “my wife”) to the baffling (“Margaret Thatcher,” “Ivanka Trump”), Fiorina responded curtly that women, being a majority in the country, “are not a special-interest group.” They deserve better, she suggested, than to be pandered to through a picture on a $10 bill.

To which: The crowd went wild. Here was Fiorina, a woman—the woman!—refusing to pander to women. Here was Fiorina, refusing to play the game the boys were playing. Here was Fiorina, everywoman-ing.   

And then, of course, there was the moment when moderator Jake Tapper, who himself seemed to be taking some pages from the Jerry Springer handbook last night, asked Fiorina about Donald Trump’s recent comments disparaging her looks. (Trump’s quote to Rolling Stone: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”) Trump had“clarified” those comments, suggesting that he was referring to her “persona.” But, you know.

Fiorina’s reply to this question was a study in the rhetorical power of starkness. The candidate took a meaningful beat. She looked at the camera. And then she said: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

The line drew applause—the slow-then-fervent kind that suggests that a debate participant has managed to do the near-impossible: say something that actually surprises a debate audience.

It was also, rhetorically, an extremely skillful answer, and not just because its shortness suggested that Trump’s comments were worth no more than those 14 little words. It was powerful, too, because it exposed Trump’s misogyny for what it is: not just isolated incidents of omg-did-he-really-say-that-style comments, but something more systemic. Something that is pernicious specifically because it implicates not just the individual women who are its targets—Rosie O’Donnell, Megyn Kelly, Brande Roderick, Ivanka Trump—but all women. Trump’s sexism, Fiorina’s response suggested, is directed not just her. It’s directed, in a very real sense, at all women. Women all over this country.

This was a fairly new tack for Fiorina, who had previously dismissed Trump’s comments about her. (“I think those comments speak for themselves,” Fiorinatold Megyn Kelly last week.) And yet it’s one that is quickly becoming her strategy—not just when it comes to deflecting Trump, but when it comes to embracing her status as the woman on the stage. Earlier this week, the candidate’s superPAC released an ad that addressed Trump’s comments. “Ladies, look at this face,” the ad—“a message from Carly,” it begins, with the candidate offering the voiceover—“and look at all of your faces. The face of leadership.” The ad alternates between images of Fiorina, giving a speech to the Federation of Republican Women in Arizona, and images of anonymous female faces, smiling and hopeful. The candidate concludes: “This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.”

The crowd—a crowd composed entirely of women—goes wild.