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Story highlights

Carly Fiorina made only passing mentions of Clinton, quickly joking about her email scandal in a commonplace way that seemed even hackneyed on the Republican stump.

Gone is the fiery anti-Clinton rhetoric that once defined her candidacy. Now that she stands more of a chance of facing Clinton, she's trying to move beyond her.

(CNN) —  

Carly Fiorina entered the Republican presidential race with a singular purpose: Attack Hillary Clinton.

At the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Fiorina ripped into Clinton, challenging her to “name one accomplishment” and charging that she “doesn’t know what leadership means.” She trolled Clinton with a news conference just outside a Clinton event in Columbia. And she launched an entire website, ReadytoBeatHillary.com, that funneled visitors to a donation page – once they watched a 54-second anti-Clinton screed.

But that was before her strong debate performances and rapid rise to the top-tier of Republican primary candidates. Now, Fiorina is now focused on telling her story. On the trail, she delivers a persona-heavy, policy-light mix of her personal rise in the business world and a theoretical take on who is supposed to serve in government.

Gone is the fiery anti-Clinton rhetoric that once defined her candidacy. Now that she stands more of a chance of facing Clinton, she’s trying to move beyond her.

“With a rise in the polls comes a rise in responsibility,” said Ron Christie, a Republican strategist who organized CPAC and counts himself as a longtime Fiorina-watcher. “It is a marked change and a departure from her original strategy to establish herself as the anti-Hillary candidate as to now trying to position herself as: ‘I can win this thing.’”

RELATED: Carly Fiorina downplays her insider credentials on the trail

Needs to emphasize her own record

Republican donors and activists have encouraged Fiorina’s uppercuts as good for the conservative cause, eager to see a candidate so committed to damaging a likely Democratic candidate who most expect to be formidable in the general election. But few top Republican insiders have committed to Fiorina exclusively.

Despite her strong poll showings of late, many voters still don’t know much about the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive. About one-third of GOP voters said in the latest CNN/ORC poll that they had no opinion of Fiorina.

RELATED: Carly Fiorina urges Hill GOP to ‘stand up and fight’ over Planned Parenthood

After hearing Fiorina at a Republican women’s luncheon here, some South Carolina Republicans said they wanted Fiorina to define herself before asking them to envision her in a general election debate.

“I’ve heard some of those comments too and you kind of smile about those, but that’s not really what I’m interested in,” said Robin Duffie, applauding Fiorina for speaking about policy issues. “That is more presidential.”

Fiorina’s toned down rhetoric suggests she’s aware of her new standing in the race. In a recent interview with People Magazine, Fiorina said she empathized with Clinton’s work ethic: “She’s smart, she’s hardworking, she’s giving it all she’s got.”

Not that Fiorina is abandoning Clinton entirely. At business lunches and grassroots rallies alike across South Carolina last week, Fiorina made only passing mentions of Clinton, quickly joking about her email scandal in a commonplace way that seemed even hackneyed on the Republican stump.

And Fiorina still pokes at Clinton when asked, telling reporters outside a pregnancy center recently that she is a “liar” on issues like the 2012 strike on Benghazi and the videos that have surfaced impugning Planned Parenthood. And she pushed back on the idea that she’s no longer leading the GOP attacks against the former secretary of state.

“In order to become president of the United States, I have to beat the Democrat. She happens to be the Democrat,” Fiorina told reporters when CNN asked if she was backing away from her previous language. “She represents a set of policies that are bad for this nation.”

Attacking Trump

Her new foil? The same as many other Republicans: Donald Trump. Fiorina, who squabbled with the boisterous frontrunner in the second debate, tells crowds that the hardliner didn’t ignite the presidential discussion over border security, and that candidates shouldn’t be defined by the “size of your helicopter” or the “size of your ego.”

But for now, she sounds almost identical to every other Republican.

“We need a president in the Oval Office who actually understands how the economy works,” she told a well-dressed crowd here as forks clinked. “We have managed the decline of this great nation for quite long enough, thank you very much.”

VIDEO: Carly Fiorina: Hillary Clinton is ‘pandering’

That boilerplate is much gentler than the critiques she dished when she needed to rake Clinton over the coals to win attention. In the pre-campaign season, Fiorina relished in uncorking the most virulent broadsides of Republican contenders, making “Unlike Hillary Clinton” one of her favorite phrases as she invited Clinton’s press corps to the news conferences Fiorina staged steps away from Clinton’s events – supposedly unintentionally.

At CPAC in February, Fiorina trained her crosshairs with plenty of intention.

“She tweets about women’s rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights. She tweets about equal pay for women but won’t answer basic questions about her own offices’ pay standards,” Fiorina said in one blistering passage. “Hillary may like hashtags. But she doesn’t know what leadership means.”

VIDEO: Conservatives rally against Hillary Clinton at CPAC

Fans of Fiorina here expressed little longing for that crusading Carly of the past. Sherri James said she too would grow quickly exasperated with an on-the-attack Fiorina. “I just don’t want to hear that they’re going back and forth,” James said, saying she’d hope all the Republicans wouldn’t aim at each other.

One target is exempt from that rule: Trump.

“I’m okay with that,” she said with a laugh.