Can Carly Fiorina Win the CNN Debate?

Can Carly cut it? Above, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks during a campaign event in Waukee, Iowa on August 16. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

If Carly Fiorina keeps polling well, she'll be invited by CNN to participate in the second GOP presidential debate, on September 16. As we learned last week, CNN changed the rules of its first debate to include any candidate who polls in the top 10 between August 7 and September 10. Fiorina's campaign fought hard for the rules change after her surprisingly excellent performance in FOX's "undercard" GOP debate for lower-polling candidates, which aired August 6.

Barring a seismic shift in the polls in the next few days, Fiorina, who is polling seventh and who has never held elected office, will be the only "undercard" candidate to graduate to the main stage, leaving behind a group of current and former U.S. senators and governors with more than 130 years of political experience between them.

Fiorina may have made short work of the likes of Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham, but can she cut it on the main stage? Having spent her adult life in business instead of politics, Fiorina has participated in only three public, political debates in her lifetime. Ergo, it's a bit difficult to gauge how she'll do in the scrum of a modern political debate. But here's what we can glean from Fiorina's past performances.

In 2010, Fiorina participated in two debates as part of her failed run for U.S. Senate in California. In the GOP primary debate, Fiorina squared off against Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and former U.S. Congressman Tom Campbell. Here's that debate:

In terms of body language, Fiorina was reserved, almost choreographed. She came off as humorless, overly serious and lacking in energy. Think female Mitt Romney. Not exactly surprising, given that they both made their names as high-powered CEOs before wading into politics. But both initially looked more like a boss about to lay you off than someone you wanted to vote for.

"Fiorina found herself on the defensive for much of the hourlong debate," wrote the San Jose Mercury News at the time. "My opponent, we know that she shipped jobs overseas, thousands of them. We know she fired workers, tens of thousands of them," Boxer said during her debate with Fiorina. Fiorina's response—in business, sometimes you have to make tough choices—didn't play well. Boxer also forced Fiorina into a tight spot by forcing her to defend her $21 million severance package from Hewlett-Packard, which she received after being terminated from the computer giant (HP's stock had dipped on her watch). Fiorina argued that her salary and severance had been agreed to by the company's board—in other words, she was only getting what they thought she was due. It fizzled: "The stock went down more than 50 percent [when Fiorina was CEO of HP], so if she's calling for accountability for teachers, there ought to be accountability for CEOs," Boxer argued.

President Obama's campaign similarly painted Romney as a heartless capitalist who was eager to close businesses and fire workers if there was a profit in it. Take, for instance, this attack ad from 2012:

By 2015, Fiorina appeared much less Romney-esque. Part of that had to do with appearance, of course. The lapels have narrowed with the times, blues have turned pink, she's sloughed off some of the stiffness that plagued her California debate performances and put to use some of the skills as a marketer that propelled her upward trajectory as a corporate executive. At HP, Fiorina was known for flashy meetings, like when she arranged a Gwen Stefani performance at the Consumer Electronics Show, a key industry gathering. Last month, at her debate performance in Cleveland, Fiorina was the charming and animated Lucent executive who wowed the HP board into hiring her; she looked less like a lecturing economics professor and more like an actual leader.

And she came ready to rumble. It is often said that governors have to contend with a lack of foreign policy experience when running for president. Fiorina, having been neither a governor nor a senator, unlike most of her opponents, could have been expected to have fallen flat on foreign policy questions. But she didn't. Asked by Fox News Channel's Martha MacCallum how she would handle the the Middle East, Fiorina had a response ready: She'd arm our Arab allies, get tough on Iran and call her "good friend" Bibi Netanyahu on her first day in office.

Fiorina is a pretty good debater. But she won't be the best one on stage in September. That accolade should probably go to Chris Christie, though voters largely thought Donald Trump won the last debate. And the weaknesses that bit Fiorina in 2010 haven't gone anywhere. She may again be forced to answer for thousands of layoffs and millions in severance. Trump has already attacked her for her management of HP, though Fiorina should be able to fire back that Trump has filed for corporate bankruptcy four times. Many Americans are fed up with that they see as political insiders. Fiorina will be one of only three bona-fide "outsiders" on the stage in September. The others will be Dr. Ben Carson, the former neurosurgeon, and Trump. Between Trump's bellicosity and Carson's soft-spoken style, she might just find herself in the sweet spot. That shouldn't be too hard.