Can the Republican debate save Carly Fiorina?

Carly Fiorina in debate mode.
Carly Fiorina in debate mode.

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    Carly Fiorina in debate mode.

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Carly Fiorina in debate mode. 01:24

Story highlights

  • Carly Fiorina reached 15% in the GOP primary polls after the September CNN debate, but has since fallen to 4%
  • She showed ability to take on Donald Trump directly
  • Fiorina hasn't run radio or TV ads, but raised nearly $7 million in the third quarter

Boulder, Colorado (CNN)Carly Fiorina has to prove this week that she can become more than the star of the Republican debate team.

Fiorina rocketed from a little-known, first-time presidential candidate to one of the Republican Party's top-tier contenders thanks to well-reviewed debate performances in August and September. But she has virtually vanished since.
    Wednesday's debate will give Fiorina another chance to make a good impression and generate some positive headlines.
    In more ways than one, Fiorina is a candidate built for the debate stage. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO has a commanding stage presence. She is quick on her feet and rarely frazzled by criticism from her rivals. As a Silicon Valley executive, Fiorina was known for her mastery of the media and her penchant for flashy, stage-managed speeches.

    READ: What to watch in Wednesday's debate


    Fiorina also proved last month that she is well equipped to take on Donald Trump, the current front-runner. In one of the most memorable exchanges of the three-hour CNN debate, Fiorina offered a stinging response to Trump's widely panned remarks mocking her physical appearance.
    "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," Fiorina said, as Trump appeared visibly uncomfortable.
    Jessica Proud, a Republican strategist who has advised a super PAC supporting Fiorina, called the exchange with Trump a standout moment.
    "The way she handled his attack on her appearance was really sharp and very effective and caused a lot of people to take notice," Proud said. "That was part of the bump that you saw -- everyone was talking about that line the next day."
    Though she has cast herself as an anti-Washington candidate, an advantage thus far in this election, Fiorina has not attracted the constant media attention enjoyed by two "outsider" rivals leading in the polls: Trump and Ben Carson.
    Trump and Carson, political novices, have drawn interest with surprising and divisive off-the-cuff comments. Fiorina is a more disciplined and polished campaigner. She's the only one of the so-called outsider candidates with experience on the stump; she ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010.
    Fiorina has also yet to run television and radio ads, and is seen as conserving her resources for a moment closer to when voting starts. Her campaign is in a solid financial position: It raised $6.8 million in the third quarter of the year, outpacing a better-known candidate like Marco Rubio.
    Republican leaders say she has time to take her campaign to the next level.
    "She may not be in the middle of another surge but another surge may very well be right around the corner," said Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. "Who knows what effect the debate will have?"
    Fiorina polled at 15% just after the September debate, in which she passionately took on Trump, Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood. Now, she's at 4%, according to last week's CNN/ORC national survey.
    Fiorina's campaign and allies have downplayed her fall in the national polls, saying she still needs time to introduce herself to voters.
    Unlike some rivals -- Trump or Jeb Bush, for example -- Fiorina is still not a household name. Her campaign says she is focused on communicating her biography and core message to voters, and predicts she will make slow but steady progress.
    Sarah Isgur Flores, Fiorina's deputy campaign manager, said the campaign was "very pleased" with Fiorina's level of support in the early primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
    "Those are people who are seeing her more than just in that one debate," Isgur Flores said. "I'm glad people liked her debate performance and liked her message, but one debate does not win the thing."

    Strong showing in first two debates

    Despite never having served in office, Fiorina spoke with confidence in the first two debates about a range of issues, including foreign policy.
    But she also stirred up fresh controversy in the last CNN debate with fiery criticism of Planned Parenthood. As she slammed the women's health group — which has recently been linked to videos that appear to show its officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue — Fiorina described alleged video footage in especially graphic terms.
    "I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes," Fiorina charged. "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."
    Critics pounced, accusing Fiorina of making misleading characterizations about the group and video.
    Despite controversy that followed, Fiorina's debating savvy thrust her into the spotlight. And those skills make for a particularly potent asset next to the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. The former presidential candidate endured dozens of debates during the 2008 campaign and proved on the debate stage this month just how valuable those practice rounds were.
    Fiorina, who vowed at the launch of her long-shot White House bid to take Clinton head-on, delights in contrasting herself with the former secretary of state. Iowa State Sen. David Johnson, who is supporting Fiorina, said Clinton attacks make for some of Fiorina's most successful zingers on the trail.
    "The first real burst of applause was when she said I know you all are looking forward to me debating Hillary Clinton," Johnson said about a recent Fiorina campaign event in Spencer, Iowa. "And the place just roared."