Fiorina bet on talent over TV ads, and it paid off

Fiorina

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks to the media Thursday after the early debate at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)

CLEVELAND – Carly Fiorina insisted that she wasn’t worried about not making the main Fox News debate stage on Thursday. But so did everybody else who was stuck in the non-primetime debate that preceded it.

An hour or so before the former Hewlett-Packard CEO took the stage here with six other lower-tier Republican presidential candidates and delivered a standout performance, her spokeswoman and I chatted in the bowels of the Quicken Loans Arena about Fiorina’s strategy.

I asked Sarah Isgur Flores if she wished the super-PAC supporting Fiorina — Carly for America — had done more in June and July to boost Fiorina’s national name ID by buying up TV time. Ohio Gov. John Kasich entered the race less than a month before the first debate and, with the help of a $1 million TV buy from his supporting super-PAC, was waltzing onto the main debate stage.

Isgur Flores said she’d actually watched the Carly super-PAC closely — by law, the campaign cannot formally coordinate with it — in hopes that it would not spend a good portion of the $3.4 million it raised in the first half of 2015 on TV.

Isgur Flores dismissed the idea that it was vital for Fiorina to be one of the top 10 candidates Thursday in order for her to break through with voters.

“It’s the first debate. It’s August,” she said.

On the phone Friday morning, Isgur Flores clarified that she hopes the super-PAC spends its money on grassroots organizing in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three primary voting states, rather than on TV.

“It’s not timing. We did talk about timing down the road because I guess at some point that would be a different calculus,” she said. “But if you’re a super-PAC looking to support Carly, we don’t have a national primary. I’d start building what you need to in those primary states.”

And in fact, when I followed Fiorina around New Hampshire last month, there were super-PAC staffers with the title of “field organizer” on their business cards. Last fall in Iowa, when Fiorina was first making noises about a possible run for president, her aides were emphasizing their ground organizing in the early states during the 2014 midterm elections, through a nonprofit group called Unlocking Potential.