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Carly Fiorina shines in first GOP debate

Story highlights

  • When the final question was asked and answered in this first debate, it was clear that Fiorina stood out.
  • After acknowledging that Trump has hit a vein of anger among Americans, Fiorina pivoted and made a play for GOP primary voters.

(CNN)Carly Fiorina was one of the biggest winners Thursday night without even stepping on the prime-time stage.

The California businesswoman didn't meet the eligibility criteria to participate in the marque event, but her strong performance at the 5 p.m. debate for second-tier candidates lingered throughout the evening.
    She did make an appearance at the later forum -- she was featured in back-to-back video clips about Iran that helped set up a question in the debate.
    The first of them showed a moment from the earlier event in which one of her opponents, Rick Perry, turned to her while seeking to explain his position on the nuclear deal.
    "I will tell you one thing," Perry said, "I would a whole lot rather (have) had Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiation than John Kerry. Maybe we would've gotten a deal where we didn't give everything away."
    The compliment from the former Texas governor came about 50 minutes into the first Republican debate of the 2016 election -- an acknowledgment from at least one of Fiorina's rivals that she is a sharp, skilled negotiator.
    When the final question was asked and answered in this first debate, it was clear that Fiorina stood out. Social media users and many commentators emphatically declared her the winner.
    At this moment in the campaign, seven GOP candidates are fighting for relevancy, respect and their political futures. The "Republican Seven," of which Fiorina is one, failed to make the cut for the main debate -- the event that will feature Donald Trump at center stage.
    For the seven lower-tier Republicans, there was no prime-time television exposure, no opportunities to compare and contrast themselves with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and no audience in the arena to watch them make the case as to why they should be the next commander-in-chief.
    One of these seven Republicans needed a homerun to differentiate themselves from the other six and show why they deserve to be in the top 10 at the next debate at the Reagan Library in California.
    The former Hewlett Packard CEO, who is sitting at between 1% to 2% in the national polls, did just that by demonstrating a sharp knowledge of the issues as she stood shoulder to shoulder on a stage of former and current U.S. senators and governors.
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    Fiorina has an interesting story to tell and she let the viewers know that she did not begin her business career in a large corner office.
    "I started as a secretary and became ultimately the chief executive of the largest technology company in the world, almost $90 billion in over 150 countries," she said. "I know personally how extraordinary and unique this nation is."
    Does it sound familiar? A certain brash New Yorker has been dominating the political headlines of late by talking up his business acumen and how it has prepared him to be president. When asked by the moderator to explain why Trump is getting all of the attention, Fiorina was able to deliver a jab at the real estate mogul over his ties to the Clintons.
    After acknowledging that Trump has hit a vein of anger in the American electorate, she pivoted and made a play for Republican primary voters. "I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?" she said.
    It is a question many Republicans, especially establishment Republicans, are wondering.
    And for all of her talk, Fiorina is a political insider. Yet she does not carry the inside-the-Beltway stigma. On Thursday night, she deftly discussed her business accomplishments and governing philosophy while emphasizing her worldly connections and steely approach to pressing issues.
    "On Day One in the Oval Office, I would make two phone calls," she said. "The first one would be to my good friend, Bibi Netanyahu, to reassure him we will stand with the State of Israel.
    "The second will be to the supreme leader of Iran. He might not take my phone call, but he would get the message, and the message is this: Until you open every nuclear and every military facility to full, open, anytime, anywhere, for real inspections, we are going to make it as difficult as possible for you to move money around the global financial system."
    Fiorina ended the night by playing again to Republican primary voters looking for a candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton in November 2016.
    "We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets into the ring," she said.
    Clearly, Fiorina did not stumble, but it remains to be seen if her performance has caused enough GOP primary voters to reconsider her current standing in the race.
    Even if they do, any budding Fiorina boomlet would have to overcome some stark realities. She needs to increase her name recognition, but she doesn't appear to have the cash to do so. Her campaign has raised very little hard money -- only $1.4 million -- and her super PAC has had minimal success catching high-dollar donors.
    And by flirting with invisibility in the polls, Fiorina hasn't incurred the wrath of opposition research or had her resume thoroughly vetted. But that could soon change.