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Donald Trump may yet prove it's possible to insult your way to the White House. His crass ad hominem attacks against his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, and anyone else who challenges him, seem only to enhance his gladiatorial appeal among a bloodthirsty GOP base.

Yet if anyone can stop him, it may be Carly Fiorina. Her mic-drop moment during last week's Republican debate on CNN was a social media sensation that distinguished the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard from a crowded, but uninspiring, pack of male candidates in more ways than one.

Asked to respond to Mr. Trump's suggestion that he was referring to her "persona" when he made a disparaging and sexist quip about her face, the 61-year-old Ms. Fiorina did not miss a beat: "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."

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Until that moment, no other contender for the nomination had been able to get the better of Mr. Trump, on or off the debate stage. Most had simply avoided taking him on directly, since it had proved such a losing proposition for anyone who tried. Former Texas governor Rick Perry thought that antagonizing the braggadocious billionaire might be the way to federate anti-Trump Republicans behind him. Instead, Mr. Perry became the first to pull out of the race, tail between his legs.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul may be the next to go. In the CNN debate, he criticized Mr. Trump's "sophomoric quality" of attacking people based on their looks. The Donald shot back: "I never attacked him on his looks, and believe me, there's plenty of subject matter right there."

Ms. Fiorina transcended this pissing contest with a no-nonsense style and grown-up delivery, demonstrating a disarming grasp of economic and foreign policy. Unlike Mr. Trump – who is clueless as to the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah or between Kurds and Quds, and doesn't care – Ms. Fiorina is supremely knowledgeable. She's also persuasive, engaging and unflappable.

You can question some of her foreign-policy ideas – she would refuse to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin, proceed with the U.S. missile defence shield in Poland, station more U.S. troops in Europe – but at least she knows what she's talking about. She could debate former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the struggling but nevertheless leading contender for the Democratic nomination, on equal terms without having to use Trump-like escape hatches.

Ms. Fiorina is not all business. In the 2010 California Senate race, she was caught on camera ridiculing her rival's hairstyle as "so yesterday." But that's not what ultimately undid her effort to unseat Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. A Boxer ad attacking Ms. Fiorina for shipping U.S. jobs to China and lining her own pockets as Hewlett-Packard's CEO proved devastating in what had until then been a close race. Ms. Fiorina ended up losing by 10 percentage points.

Her time at HP remains her biggest strength and biggest vulnerability. Before her, no woman had reached such heights in corporate America. But her tenure was marred by battles with her board of directors, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, a controversial takeover and a 50-per-cent decline in HP's stock price. She was fired. Mr. Trump says she "ran HP into the ground."

Ms. Fiorina remains unapologetic, and many of her colleagues have leaped to her defence. But she will have a tough time defending laying off thousands of HP employees. Moves that might be hailed as smart or visionary in the business world can be a career killer for a CEO-turned-politician. Mitt Romney was called a corporate turnaround genius before he ran for president. Then, he was vilified as heartless numbers guy.

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In 2010, I spent time in California covering the state's Senate and gubernatorial races and was impressed by Ms. Fiorina's poise, intellect and energy. As a candidate, she was head and shoulders above Ms. Boxer, a tired left-wing tape recorder, and Meg Whitman, the star Republican recruit who ran for governor that year (Ms. Whitman is now the CEO of HP, encountering much of the same corporate turmoil that Ms. Fiorina faced).

Ms. Fiorina does not have Mr. Trump's populist touch. And while she may appeal to women, her visceral opposition to abortion (and use of graphic imagery to describe the procedure) may be off-putting for moderate voters. But she may just be the only one who can trump Mr. Trump.

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