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Last week, Hillary Clinton’s aides conceded that they’ve been working hard to humanize their candidate, encouraging her to show more humor and warmth.

Wednesday night, Carly Fiorina ran away with the CNN Republican debate without cracking a smile.

Instead, she was uniformly cool, controlled, uncannily composed. And on a stage with 10 male presidential candidates, it was that demeanor — far more than gender — that set her apart.

A debate involving Donald Trump can easily become a mix of carnival sideshow and middle school cafeteria. Host Jake Tapper seemed to want it that way; he came armed with a list of mean things Trump had said, hoping to pick some fights.

Most candidates took the bait. But Fiorina stayed stiff and serene — she refused to engage — and in middle school, that’s how you vanquish the bully.


When Trump denied that he’d insulted her appearance in a Rolling Stone interview (his exact words were “Look at that face!”), Fiorina’s response was succinct: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” For the first time in months, Trump looked practically speechless.

That exchange won Fiorina the room, and she kept going from there, using her composure as a sort of policy statement. She was the detached outsider, disgusted with Washington politics. The unflinching diplomat who would stop Vladimir Putin and other dictators with a show of strength.

Granted, the details were wanting. She called for an enormous military buildup, but never once mentioned how she’d pay for it, and nobody asked. She went on a base-pleasing rant against Planned Parenthood, describing sting video footage that sounds truly horrifying — but doesn’t actually exist.

But she was also occasionally shrewd. Asked which woman should appear on a redesigned $10 bill, she replied that no one should: It’s a feel-good idea that would do nothing to advance women’s causes in the future.

As to what would help women, Fiorina was vague. She’s a glass-ceiling breaker, by definition. But when she referenced “Lady Liberty” and “Lady Justice’’ in her closing statement, it felt forced.


It would be interesting to see her up against Clinton, one-on-one — because she’d have to confront gender issues more directly; because she might temper her debate-night coolness with some un-Clintonian warmth; and because she and Clinton have such different approaches to foreign policy.

That last would be the real show. The reason to want a Fiorina-Clinton debate isn’t because they’re both women, but because they’re both formidable.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.