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Carly Fiorina proves herself a worthy A-list U.S. presidential contender

Carly Fiorina was a clear winner, chosen by 33 per cent of 1,337 Republican voters who watched the debate held in California.

MONICA ALMEIDA/NYT

In the gaggle of middle-aged guys in suits, Carly Fiorina stood out.

Not just because she was the only woman among the Republican presidential wannabes staged in front of the glistening blue-and-white former Air Force One that carried Ronald Reagan back to his beloved California.

Rather Ms. Fiorina, with her almost wonkish command of policy details and her tough takedown of Donald Trump, used this week's televised Republican debate to force her way into the circle of serious candidates.

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Alone among Mr. Trump's rivals – several of whom tried to take a poke at the front-runner – only Ms. Fiorina landed a solid punch.

Mr. Trump, the bombastic billionaire whose seemingly misogynist slaps have infuriated U.S. women across the political spectrum, had, characteristically, savaged Ms. Fiorina, a breast cancer survivor, saying in an interview with a Rolling Stone reporter: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?"

In Wednesday's GOP debate – with 23 million Americans watching – Ms. Fiorina waited for her moment and then counter-punched with clinical precision.

"Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," she said. Earlier she had said: "This is the face of a 61-year-old woman," adding: "I'm proud of every year and every wrinkle."

Ms. Fiorina's rebuke drew cheers and an ovation from the hundreds packed into the Ronald Reagan presidential library and social media erupted in accolades.

Flushed red and flustered, The Donald, property magnate and reality TV show star best known for summarily firing those who irked him on The Apprentice, struggled to respond.

"I think she's got a beautiful face," he insisted, a remark greeted with a stony glare from Ms. Fiorina and gasps of derision from some in the audience.

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During the debate Mr. Trump stumbled, caught out several times by rivals who suggested he was too much of a gadfly to have his finger on the nuclear trigger and too ill-informed to handle leading the world's sole remaining superpower. Characteristically, Mr. Trump insisted it didn't matter if he was too busy making money to bone up on geopolitics. "I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit" in the Oval Office, he said after Florida Senator Marco Rubio reeled off an impressive summation of major players in the Middle East.

But it was Ms. Fiorina, the law school dropout who once worked as an office temp before rising to become one of a handful of women atop a major corporation, who combined a solid command of issues with some moments of genuine emotion and emerged as the biggest winner.

"I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing," she said when asked about the standard Republican get-tough-on drugs approach. "My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction. So, we must invest more in treatment."

"Carly won it," John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington, said: "She was passionate and tough."

Even Mr. Trump conceded in a day-after appearance on Morning Joe that "Carly did well."

Ms. Fiorina didn't just score points against Mr. Trump.

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Some of her sharpest comments were directed at Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state, now seeking the Democratic nomination and a return to the White House as president.

"Mrs. Clinton has to defend her track record," said Ms. Fiorina. "Her track record of lying about Benghazi, of lying about her e-mails, about lying about her servers. She does not have a track record of accomplishment."

A snap poll of 1,337 Republican voters who watched the debate, conducted by Gravis Marketing, found Ms. Fiorina the clear winner, chosen by 33 per cent of respondents, well ahead of Mr. Trump with 21 per cent and Mr. Rubio with 16 per cent. Ms. Fiorina also polled the highest percentage – eight in 10 respondents – who said they had a more favourable opinion of her after watching the debate.

It's a huge step for the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and only woman among the 15 remaining Republican hopefuls seeking the party's 2016 presidential nomination. Ms. Fiorina has never held public office, losing a Senate race in 2010 to California's incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. She was relegated, along with other six other low-polling Republicans, to the little-watched "undercard" debate in August, so Wednesday's event was her first major national exposure.

Fortuitously, it was held on Ms. Fiorina's home turf, in California, where mainstream Reagan Republicans far outnumber the party's right-wing Tea Party fringe. Already, the winnowing of a huge and unwieldy Republican field is under way.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry was the first to quit. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, although officially still in the race, is polling so miserably that CNN – sponsor of the second debate – didn't even ask him to replace Mr. Perry on the also-rans undercard. The four who held their own debate before the main event – Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former New York governor George Pataki – are all getting less than one-per-cent support in national polls. All four may drop out in the face of futility and lack of funds over the next few weeks.

Even if they all do, the Republican field will still number around a dozen candidates and will likely be cut in half after the first couple of primaries early next year.

Staying in the top six may be crucial to having a credible chance as the hectic primary season takes off in the spring of 2016.

Like Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon and the only African-American in the Republican field, Ms. Fiorina is running as a political outsider, someone untainted by the dysfunction and partisan paralysis that has created a deep pool of disdain for long-serving politicians.

"I'll tell you why people are supporting outsiders," Ms. Fiorina said. "If someone's been in the system their whole life, they don't know how broken the system is. A fish swims in water, it doesn't know it's water. It's not that politicians are bad people, it's that they've been in that system forever."

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