(CNN)Carly Fiorina rolled into Iowa on Thursday with a new status: surging presidential contender.
Carly Fiorina's blast to the top-tier
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive is capitalizing on the momentum she gained after last week's Republican presidential debate as she brands herself as an outsider and former CEO who can take on the political establishment.
"We have to challenge the status quo of Washington, something that the political class really hasn't been willing to do for a long time," she said at a town hall in Alden, Iowa.
After languishing for months at the bottom of the polls, Fiorina has made a remarkable leap into the top tier of candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, where she'll campaign next week. The debate stage highlighted some of Fiorina's strongest assets: She is a gifted public speaker who thrives in front of the camera, and has no qualms about sharply attacking her opponents. And with her swift and explicit condemnation of Donald Trump's controversial comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Fiorina also reminded voters of one quality that is unique to her alone: that she is the sole woman in the crowded GOP field.
"It's like a collision of planets," said Lauren Carney, Fiorina's New Hampshire state director. "The stars are aligning correctly for Carly right now and the spotlight is on her, and the microphones are in front of her.
The Fiorina surge began when she delivered a stand-out performance at last Thursday's Fox News debate, aggressively slamming both Trump and Hillary Clinton.
She found herself in the spotlight again the following day when her delayed flight from Atlanta landed in Washington.
While she was in the air, Trump went on CNN to make a now-infamous comment about Kelly, one of the Fox debate moderators: "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her, wherever."
When Fiorina was on the ground, her iPhone was blowing up. From the airport, she blasted this out to her several hundred thousand followers on Twitter: "Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse." Then: "I stand with @megynkelly."
The tweets immediately lit up social media and marked the second breakout moment for the former Silicon Valley executive within 48 hours. In an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper over the weekend, Fiorina doubled down, calling Trump's remarks "completely inappropriate and offensive."
"I started out as a secretary, and as I made my way up in the business world, a male-dominated business world, I've had lots of men imply that I was unfit for decision-making because maybe I was having my period. So I'll say it, OK?" she said. "Can we think of a single instance in which a man's hormones might have clouded his judgment?"
Even before officially becoming a candidate, Fiorina sought to distinguish herself as Clinton's most fierce antagonist. The former CEO has repeatedly reminded voters that the Democratic Party's so-called "war on women" allegations against the GOP simply wouldn't work on her.
"She has chosen to say, as the only woman in the field, I have the unique ability to take on Hillary Clinton. I think that's a strong argument and I don't think she should shrink from it," said GOP pollster Christine Matthews who has coached candidates on winning over female voters. "She is a woman and you can't deny that."
As voters begin to take a fresh look at Fiorina, the challenges she faces are serious.
In national polls leading up to last week's debate, she was stuck in the low single-digits percent along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. She'll now have to move that needle significantly to qualify to participate in the main debate hosted by CNN in California next month.
(A new CNN/ORC poll Wednesday had good news for Fiorina in Iowa, where her support among likely Republican voters moved up to 7%).
Fiorina's most coveted resume line — the six years she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard — is also a significant vulnerability for the candidate. She was a highly polarizing figure at the company, and to this day, former and current employees are divided on her legacy there, including her execution of a controversial merger with Compaq.
Her fundraising is also in need of a boost. Though she's collected money from a number of deep-pocketed and influential donors in California and in the tech world, her war chest is barely keeping pace with her rivals.
"She was having a hard time getting enough people to see her on the national level and for her to move her poll numbers," said Anne Hathaway, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. "But I don't believe that this is fleeting, I think this is a part of a steady build. Now, the question is: what is her high water mark?"
Campaign officials and those close to Fiorina say as eager as she's been to tackle gender issues, the candidate's outreach has hardly been limited to women.
Much like Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, another political newcomers in the current GOP field, Fiorina is hoping to harness the widespread anger and frustration at the Washington political class by casting herself as an outsider with no obligations to the party establishment.
"Of course, people question: can a candidate prevail who has never held public office?" said Deborah Bowker, a longtime friend of FIorina's who was chief of staff during her 2010 Senate campaign in California. "I think her opportunity and her challenge is to talk about her experience and talk about how relevant that is to the issues we face today."