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Carly Fiorina was the clear winner of Fox News's first debate

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fox News's second-tier debate had an impressive lineup of experienced politicians. It included Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the 2012 GOP presidential primary; Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history; George Pataki, the three-term governor of New York; Bobby Jindal, the sitting governor of Louisiana; and Lindsey Graham, a two-term US senator.

Update: Coverage of CNN's Republican debate.

But the most compelling candidate on the stage, by far, had never held elected office.

The only campaign Carly Fiorina has ever run was a failed challenge to Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010. Her résumé comes from the corporate world — she led Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, and her record was, shall we say, mixed — but you wouldn't have known it by watching her performance on Thursday.

The debate was humiliating. It took place in an empty arena and the moderators, seemed intent on rubbing the participants' noses in their failure to qualify for the primetime clash. They began by asking, in so many words, why they were such losers that they hadn't made the cut for the bigger debate. Fiorina had the most graceful response:

Well, I would begin by reminding people that at this point in previous presidential elections, Jimmy Carter couldn't win, Ronald Reagan couldn't win, Bill Clinton couldn't win, and neither could've Barack Obama.

The moderators then moved on to asking why Donald Trump was crushing in the polls. Perry rambled through his reply. Fiorina responded with a nice zinger, a clear understanding of what was powering Trump's rise, and a fairly devastating closing line:

I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a phone call from Bill Clinton? I didn't. Maybe it's because I hadn't given money to the foundation or donated to his wife's Senate campaign.

Here's the thing that I would ask Donald Trump in all seriousness. He is the party's frontrunner right now, and good for him.

I think he's tapped into an anger that people feel. They're sick of politics as usual. You know, whatever your issue, your cause, the festering problem you hoped would resolved, the political class has failed you. That's just a fact, and that's what Donald Trump taps into.

I would also just say this. Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?

In a strange way, Rick Perry also made the case for Fiorina. In his closing statement, he said:

Our best days are in front of us. We can reform those entitlements, we can change that corporate tax code and lower it. We can put America back on track on a growth level and a growth rate that we've never seen in the history of this country. Manufacturing will flow back into this country. It just needs a corporate executive type at the top that's done it before.

That seems like an argument for a used-to-run-a-company type, not a long-serving-governor type.

The consensus was clear: Fiorina won the debate

Carly Fiorina

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Candidates relegated to this runner-up debate had a tough task ahead of them: They needed to convince voters, the media, and the GOP's donor class, that Fox News had gotten it wrong — that they were a primetime candidate who had ended up on the wrong stage.

After the debate ended, it was clear Fiorina — and only Fiorina — had succeeded. Fox News's instant analysts were effusive in their praise. "I was most impressed with Carly Fiorina. I just thought she stood above the other six people on the stage," Chris Wallace said.

"Carly Fiorina stood out with her precision and fluency," George Will agreed.

Viewers were also impressed by Fiorina. By the end of the debate. Google searches for Fiorina were outpacing searches Donald Trump — not to mention every other Republican presidential candidate:

"I am not a member of the political class," Fiorina said in her closing statement. "I am a conservative. I can win this job. I can do this job."

After tonight, I bet quite a few more Republicans agree. So too might some of the other candidates, who will look at Fiorina's résumé and political skills and see a promising vice presidential candidate.

Fiorina is clearly ready for a bigger stage.