When you can’t follow the rules, change the rules. That was the strategy of Carly Fiorina’s campaign as it struggled to cope with the reality that she might fall short of a spot on the main stage of the second Republican presidential debate. But she made it. And her team has one Hoosier in particular to thank.
The journey began on April 20 in the ballroom of a downtown Indianapolis hotel where the former Hewlett-Packard CEO rocked the house in front of 800 Hoosier politicos at the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series annual event .
Among those present that afternoon was Indiana’s Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann. An unabashed supporter of women in the political arena, Ellspermann was a natural audience for Fiorina’s story of overcoming obstacles and building a successful career. So it came as only a slight surprise when on June 29 Fiorina’s campaign announced that Ellspermann would serve as the campaign’s Indiana co-chair. In that announcement, Ellspermann said Fiorina would “place problem-solving before politics, a behavior Americans desire and deserve.”
Little did they know that both of their problem-solving skills would be put to use so quickly.
Coming out of the first debates of the presidential campaign season, Fiorina was flying high. The consensus quickly cemented that she dominated the “undercard debate” in which candidates polling outside the top 10 were invited to participate. On that stage, surrounded by the likes of former senator Rick Santorum and current U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Fiorina exuded confidence and poise and an ability to deftly swipe at Hillary Clinton in a way other candidates had been incapable of doing. All of that is, of course, a subjective measure. “Winning” a debate is not a real thing; it’s simply a perception of viewers and pundits and not based in any actual reality.
Nevertheless, Fiorina’s supporters hoped to turn that subjective, yet universal, consensus into concrete support heading into the next debate because CNN’s criteria required as much. Based on the rules put forth by CNN on May 20, a month after Ellspermann and Fiorina first crossed paths and over a month before Ellspermann officially joined the campaign, polls dating back to July 16 would be used to determine the 10 candidates invited on stage for the three-hour primetime debate. Those rules were effectively stacked against candidates who gained late summer momentum and in favor of those who showed promise a few months ago.
Recognizing the obstacle they faced, on Aug. 26 the campaign sent an email to CNN in an attempt to change the rules. That entreaty was met with resistance. A CNN spokesperson responded that, “We believe that our approach is a fair and effective way to deal with the highest number of candidates we have ever encountered.”
Fiorina’s campaign naturally disagreed and quickly developed a lather, rinse, repeat public relations campaign to shame CNN into doing their bidding. That effort hit its peak on Sept. 1 when Ellspermann sent an uncharacteristically sharply worded letter to CNN head Jeff Zucker demanding the rules be altered in Fiorina’s favor.
The letter, which was co-signed by more than 250 individuals from across the country including nine other influential Hoosiers, stated, “Carly Fiorina has already proven that she deserves to be on the main debate stage. It’s time for CNN and the (Republican National Committee) to recognize it as well.”
Within a few hours, CNN relented and amended their rules to stipulate that any candidate placing in the top 10 in polls conducted after the first debate would also earn a spot in the next primetime debate, ballooning the stage to 11 participants and securing Fiorina coveted space in the spotlight.
With their problem solved, it was up to Fiorina to deliver and just as in the first debate the universal consensus quickly gelled that she one of the few bright stars of the night. As a result, Fiorina could be off to the races. If she plays her hand correctly and builds considerable momentum between now and the Oct. 24 debate, she could invariably find herself not only in the top 10, but in the top tier of three or four serious contenders for the nomination.
In an interview with WTHR’s Kevin Rader, Ellspermann downplayed her role in the effort. “Our letter, my letter, might have been one piece of (getting her on stage), but the important thing was we got it done and she was on that stage and America got to see her…and I think America is now watching and I look forward to a very strong Carly now going forward.”
As America watches the weeks and months unfold, let the historical record show it all started with a letter from Indiana’s lieutenant governor.
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies and author of the book, “The War on Millennials.” He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party.