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Fiorina takes on Trump — and wins

September 17, 2015, 11:33 AM UTC

Carly Fiorina made the most of the debate spot she had to scrap to secure.

The HP CEO-turned-Republican presidential candidate on Wednesday proved she deserved her place on the main stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library by becoming the first contender to land a body blow on the GOP leader, Donald Trump. And she did it on her way to what many early reviews declared a winning performance on a crowded stage, amid 10 other contenders scrambling for airtime.

Maybe it took another business leader to accomplish what experienced pols could not in taking on Trump without looking diminished for it.

The key moment between the two — arguably the most memorable in the entire three-hour debate — came when CNN moderator Jake Tapper gave Fiorina a chance to respond to Trump’s recent disparaging comments about her appearance. Fiorina wryly noted that Trump had just needled former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for a remark that sowed doubt about his commitment to women. “You know, it’s interesting to me,” she said, while a split-screen captured Trump looking braced, “Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly in what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

And that was it; that was all she said. Her concision packed a punch, especially in a setting where rivals rarely volunteered available time back to the moderators. And it left Trump reeling, compelling him to try to make amends by praising Fiorina as beautiful (a retort many no doubt understood as missing the point).

The two clashed again later over their respective business records. Trump, obliquely referencing a Fortune piece on Fiorina’s rocky performance at HP and her earlier troubles running Lucent Technologies, said “she can’t run any of my companies.” Fiorina, who throughout offered a crisp foil to Trump’s ragged-edged bluster, had a ready reply, pointing to the developer’s history of bankruptcies as evidence voters can’t trust him with the nation’s finances. Her answers may have made a hash of facts at points but it’s doubtful it will matter.

The polls in the Republican primary so far have followed a mysterious logic, not necessarily tethered to events in the world. It’d be hard to play back the first debate, for example, and conclude that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson turned in a standout performance, and yet he zoomed in its wake. So Fiorina may not pose an immediate threat to Trump, now solidly ensconced atop the polls. But following her performance in Simi Valley, Calif., last night, it does seem the race is primed for a Carly Moment.