How much do debates matter?
We'll know soon enough, and the litmus test will be Carly Fiorina.
The former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard moved up from the kiddie table and shined in Wednesday night's main-stage Republican presidential primary debate.
You win debates -- and elections, for that matter -- by creating moments and projecting maturity, and Fiorina did plenty of both from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
That was especially impressive in the context of this presidential race, which has been fueled by celebrity -- mostly Donald Trump's. Substance has taken a backseat.
We'll know soon enough how many people were tuned in to the debate, and how many stuck to the end. Were enough listening for Fiorina's performance to move her needle? That's what happened when she was in the jayvee game in Cleveland. It seems likely she'll bounce up again.
There were other winners and losers, which is to be expected when 11 candidates are squeezed on stage like so many rush hour commuters.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio got stronger as the night went, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did enough to earn another debate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson seemed to wither away, and Trump -- well, the bloom seemed to start coming off his rose but that could be just wishful thinking. Then again, his artless rejoinder to Fiorina's artful response to his "who would vote for that" jab about her face was a brilliant expose of his boorishness. Whether he's hurt in the polls by that exchange and others remains to be seen. He's defied gravity and entropy and all laws of force and inertia so far.
But Fiorina clearly helped herself the most, and only partly because so many people did not know much about her. This turned out to be much more than an audition for the vice-presidential spot on someone else's ticket. And the extent to which she succeeded could be heard in the reaction of the audience, which was anxious to applaud her loudly and often -- most notably, when CNN moderator Jake Tapper was trying to get her to stop her detailed explanation of what the military needed. She kept talking, he kept interjecting, the crowd kept clapping.
She was folksy -- like when she said career politicians can't fix what's wrong because a fish that swims in water doesn't know it's water.
She was personal -- like when she told of burying a child lost to drug addiction.
She was emotional -- like when she was visibly shaking while attacking Planned Parenthood.
She was surprising -- like when she said she wouldn't put any woman on the $10 bill, dismissing that as a mere gesture.
She came off as thoughtful, composed, prepared and angry about Hillary Clinton.
Here's a guess she'll be standing a lot closer to the center of the stage the next time this group convenes on Oct. 28 at the University of Colorado.