After a debate like the Republican face off at the Reagan Library Wednesday night, it’s customary for candidates or their surrogates to gather in the spin room to meet reporters and tout their performances. And indeed, everyone gathered in the tightly-packed room — Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson in person, others represented by campaign aides and supporters — when the debate concluded.

Except Carly Fiorina. In a conspicuous absence, neither Fiorina nor anyone from her campaign showed up after the debate. After it was clear no one was coming, I sent a top aide a note. Was the absence intentional? If so, why?

“Yep,” the aide answered, with a two-word explanation: “Mic drop.”

***

[S]omewhere near the middle of Wednesday night’s debate, Donald Trump ran out of BS. And he knew it.

It began when Carly Fiorina went after him. She cut him—the first time any candidate has cut him since, well, he launched his campaign. Fiorina was asked about Trump’s recent Rolling Stone comments expressing revulsion at her face. “Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly in what Mr. Bush said,” Fiorina said. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” It brought the house down. Game respects game, and all Trump could muster, over a humiliated grin, was an even more patronizing compliment about how Fiorina has a “beautiful face.”

From then on, Trump was more or less just another one of the figures onstage, not the outsized presence who has commanded a majority of campaign coverage in the last months. He was far from the Trump who came out of the gate and, without prompt, called Sen. Rand Paul ugly, brushed off Jeb Bush’s hit about his casino interests in Florida, refused to offer Columba Bush any apology for suggesting that she had softened her husband to the Mexican menace. He loves to bat Jeb Bush and Rand Paul around. He had much less luck with Fiorina, and that seemed to humble him…

It would be foolish to predict a Trump collapse after this debate, for the simple reason that people have been predicting his collapse since the minute he declared his candidacy and many times since, never to see it materialize. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But the theory that the Trump Show can be exhausted—that if you work him long enough, he’ll be exposed as hollow and drained of bombast—was resuscitated. By the end of the night, you could see him beginning to feel the way he should be feeling: that he doesn’t belong here.

***

There’s one story out of the CNN Republican debate, and that’s Carly Fiorina. The cable network expanded the ranks of GOP candidates to include her in the primetime debate, and she made the most of the opportunity. She did what no one thought was possible: She beat Donald Trump in the television game with her retort to his comments about her physical appearance. And she did more than that: She gave crisp, strong, visceral answers on questions regarding national security, abortion, and the economy. Conservative audiences have been thrilled at Fiorina’s appearances for months. Tonight she showed the nation that she is articulate, capable, passionate, and fearless. She displayed more thumos than many of the men on stage.

Fiorina has a fascinating speaking style. She’s clipped, emphatic, almost rote in her delivery. But it comes across as though she’s entirely committed to telling you what she’s thinking at any given moment. I can’t think of a more affecting statement from a politician I’ve heard than the one she gave on the Planned Parenthood scandal. When you combine that with how she destroyed Donald Trump when she was asked to comment on his remarks about her appearance, I expect the Republican audience of this debate to move to her in swarms.

What also makes Carly fascinating is that she’s gotten to this point without ever holding office and without a huge profile among Republicans. Ben Carson has been a grassroots favorite since he rebuked President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast years ago. Donald Trump is Donald Trump. And Jeb Bush is the frontrunner’s frontrunner—the son and brother of presidents. Carly? She was a surrogate for McCain in 2008 and a failed candidate for senate in California in 2010. And now she’s on the Republican main stage, outperforming two term governors.

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For a candidate known to ridicule his rivals with reckless abandon, Trump struggled all night to respond to Fiorina’s criticism — sometimes countering with cringe-inducing condescension, other times shriveling into an uncharacteristically quiet display of head-shaking and tongue-biting. He appeared to reveal a weakness that could be especially damaging to any Republican presidential nominee next year: Trump doesn’t know what to do when women challenge him…

Asked about Fiorina’s pre-debate preparations for Trump, deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores told BuzzFeed News, “It’s really just Carly being Carly. … She’s fearless. This is all her. Carly won’t be intimidated.”

Trump, meanwhile, has already struggled this campaign cycle with being challenged by a woman. After Fox News host Megyn Kelly aggressively grilled him at last month’s Republican debate, he launched a high-profile, days-long feud that ultimately culminated in his suggesting that Kelly had been menstruating during the event.

He has also has a well-documented penchant for defining and categorizing women according to their attractiveness, as noted recently in the Washington Post.

***

With former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s breakout debut on the main debate stage, the race has become a tale of three outsiders, not just of one bombastic showman.

“He didn’t meet the moment,” said Purple Strategies President Bruce Haynes, calling it “the disappearing act of Donald Trump.”

Concluded Republican consultant Dick Wadhams: “His shallowness on the issues is finally starting to be exposed. We’ll see if he shows up so unprepared for debate three.”

***

Sixty percent of Republican insiders called Fiorina the biggest winner of the evening — no one else was even close — pointing to everything from how she handled Donald Trump to her grasp of policy issues.

A New Hampshire Republican cheered, “The nation finally got a chance to see what we in New Hampshire have been intrigued and impressed by: a political outsider with some real policy chops and the demeanor to be considered a serious contender.”…

Fiorina’s performance even captured the attention of some Democratic insiders. “Carly, hands down,” added a New Hampshire Democrat, who like all Caucus insiders responded via an online survey. “Fiorina drops the mic. Her closing argument was Jeffersonian. She handled Trump like the junior high schooler he is. Holy shit.”

***

The best contrast: Fiorina vs. Trump. Again and again, she out-boxed him. She declined invitations to criticize him personally. When asked about Trump’s comment about her face, she reframed an insult to her as an insult to every woman in America. Trump responded with his biggest mistake of the night. He retreated, praising Fiorina as “a beautiful woman.”

But this one time, the rule that to compliment is to dominate rebounded against Trump. The debate-night flattery was as glaringly unprofessional as the previous insult, and every woman watching would be reminded of some leering boorish man that she’d had to deal with. This was the one time that complimenting rebounded against the complimenter. Yes, Trump was acting like the boss all right—but the kind of boss who costs the company a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

I’d expected Trump to react to Fiorina’s pre-planned protest against his remarks about her face with a follow-up attack. “I shouldn’t have commented on her looks. I should have said that she wrecked her company, laid off thousands of workers, and walked away with a $40 million golden parachute.” But maybe it was just as well he didn’t. When he finally did get around to Fiorina’s corporate record, she was more than ready for him, hitting back hard with a plausible defense of her record—and a cutting critique of Trump’s own business practices.

Unlike Jeb Bush, Fiorina never registered a reaction to anything Trump said of her. Bush showed shock, incredulity, outrage. Perhaps he imagined that by showing outrage, he’d convince the audience that he was telling the truth and Trump was lying. What he also showed, though, was that he did not govern his emotions and could not convert anger into effective action. Fiorina registered nothing. She just hit back harder than she’d been hit.

***

When Fiorina wasn’t galvanizing the nation to stand up to a repulsive offense against human dignity [by Planned Parenthood] financed by the public, she was reminding Americans that they were up to the task. In a deft closing statement, Fiorina reminded Americans that they were inheritors to a legacy of republican civic virtues dating back millennia. Moreover, woman have always symbolized these virtues.

“I think what this nation can be and must be is symbolized by Lady Liberty and Lady Justice,” Fiorina closed. “ Lady Liberty stands tall and strong. She is clear-eyed and resolute. She doesn’t shield her eyes from the realities of the world, but she faces outward into the world nevertheless, as we always must. And she holds her torch high, because she knows she is a beacon of hope in a very troubled world.”…

“You campaign in poetry,” the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously quipped. “You govern in prose.” We don’t know how Fiorina would govern, but we do know how she has and will continue to campaign. Acutely aware of the obstacles before a presidential candidate who has never held elected office, Fiorina has spent most of her time on the trail demonstrating her command of the issues and her capabilities as an executive. On Wednesday night, she showed that she could also weave a compelling narrative and paint a portrait of the nation she hopes to lead through lyrical and evocative prose. Fiorina is not the only candidate in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination blessed with this talent (and a staff of superb speechwriters), but she is a natural at utilizing this gift.

***

While Fiorina is eschewing any attempt at a soft or explicitly feminine image and rising to the top of the GOP field based on sheer conviction and her command of the facts, the New York Times recently ran the deadly headline “Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say.” Fiorina’s is blowing politicians with decades of experience off the stage discussing foreign policy, and the former Secretary of State is doing fluff interviews on Ellen. Fiorina is deftly parrying grossly sexist attacks so they redound to her advantage, and Hillary Clinton, allegedly a feminist icon, is palling around with Kim Kardashian and calling a woman who’s sex tape might be one of the least meretricious aspects of her career an “inspirational” and “aspirational” figure. (She made those comments during another hard-hitting interview with former Saved By the Bell star Mario Lopez, now the host of Extra.)

But more than that, Fiorina has demonstrated real political skill in that she can convincingly evolve. Earlier in the day, radio host Mark Levin’s new publication, Conservative Review, blasted out an article reminding everyone “news reports say that Carly Fiorina was pro-choice, before becoming pro-life, and she supported fetal research in her 2010 campaign.” Then in tonight’s debate, Carly Fiorina stood up and eviscerated Planned Parenthood with a speech that may be the biggest stand-up-and-cheer moment the oft ignored pro-life movement has had in years. This is certainly a contrast with the rabidly pro-choice Clinton, but it might be more instructive to compare it to the last GOP presidential candidate’s evolution on abortion. I don’t doubt that Romney had a sincere conversion when he went from pro-Roe v. Wade to pro-life, but his explanation for how that happened was decidedly low energy, to borrow the insult du jour.

Considering Fiorina has only run for office once unsuccessfully, she’s demonstrating an astonishing ability to grow, adapt, and persuade. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, just can’t seem to convince voters that she’s “likable enough” after decades at the forefront of national politics, to say nothing of whether voters believe she’s “entirely committed to telling you what she’s thinking.” 

***

The personal attacks that have worked so well for Donald Trump these past few weeks fell flat tonight. Trump didn’t get this at first, and even threw out a gratuitous insult or two mid-debate. Gradually, however, Trump woke up to the fact that crass wasn’t working anymore. By the time Carly Fiorina took him down, we’d crossed into new territory. Trump looked small and ugly…

I’m sympathetic to the frustration with the GOP establishment, and with the overall direction of the country, that are feeding the Trump phenomenon. But I don’t think Trump is the answer. After this debate, I don’t think voters are going to see him as the answer either…

Wonderful as she is, I’m not sure Fiorina has the experience necessary to assume the presidency in 2017. Even so, Fiorina took down Trump with something more than her deft attacks. She showed what a non-politician who actually does intimate potential greatness might look like. Trump was diminished by comparison.

***

And yet the problem for Fiorina is that despite her killer debate performances and her perfect ads, few are taking her seriously as a candidate for president. Is it possible to have a runaway favorite for vice president? If it is, then Carly Fiorina is it…

What these non politicians have in common is they tend to speak plainly, with language not couched by years of politicking and trying to be many things to many people. The public loves it—but ultimately doesn’t come out and vote for it. The liability of the non-politician is they have limited experience running for office. Like Cain, Fiorina has run for U.S. Senate previously and lost…

Fiorina is doing something right, and she should keep doing it. On Wednesday night, compared to the other candidates, Carly Fiorina looked like she could go another three hours and not miss a beat. Whether Americans are finally ready to take a chance on the non politician, be it Fiorina or the others, remains to be seen.

***

Carly Fiorina is a RINO in many ways in her past. She was in the McCain campaign.  Two years ago she criticized Ted Cruz for government shutdown activity and so forth.  I’ve been touting Carly ever since this whole process began.  She is obviously very smart and committed and energetic and so forth, and she’s right on so much of what she says, and I remember touting her.  She went back to it last night talking about the character of this country and how we’re losing that when she brilliantly combined the answer to Planned Parenthood and Iran.  I thought it was well done.  It was very conservative.  But Carly, you go back to 2008, and she was right in there with Meg Whitman and McCain and so forth, part of RINO caucus…

I touted her after the first pregame meal debate, you know, where she didn’t make the main stage.  I thought she had some brilliant answers in that debate, particularly when she was talking about, again, the character of the United States and how we’re losing that.  She… I forget the exact quote.  She said the Democrat Party is destroying the character of United States of America.  So it was a great answer.  She went back to that, when she linked Iran and Planned Parenthood in one answer.

She was versed on foreign affairs.  She was versed on foreign policy.  She was versed on domestic policy.  She had a clear answer on what she would do the first day, first hour, what have you.  I mean, it was impressive…

There’s no question last night Carly Fiorina’s star shown brighter than anybody. There’s no question about it. But we’re nowhere near the end of this.  There’s still much to happen here, and none of it predictable.  So all in all, it was a good night for conservatism, provided those articulating it mean it, which is always what’s up for grabs.

***

“I hope it’s pretty clear that I am a fighter,” the former Hewlett-Packard CEO said on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday. “If you can’t fight on a debate stage than you’re not going to be able to stand up” for Americans.

***

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“I think going in, we knew the narrative no matter what was gonna happen was they were gonna say that Carly had a big night, no matter what, and obviously, they said that,” Walker told radio host Glenn Beck on Thursday…

“I mean, I mentioned that’s what’s wrong with this campaign, we’re not actually talking about issues we’re talking about personalities,” he added.

***

Trump — and Tapper — largely let the issue drop. But Fiorina’s past political history suggests that her struggles at HP could be a campaign killer.

In 2010, Fiorina was running surprisingly close to California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was struggling in a strong election cycle for Republicans nationally. Then, Boxer ran this ad focused on Fiorina’s time at the helm of HP.