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Carly Fiorina: What you need to know about the winner of the early Republican debate

Carly Fiorina
Carly Fiorina
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Vox's Ezra Klein says that Carly Fiorina won the first Republican debate on Thursday, which featured candidates who didn't make the cut for the top-tier debate later in the evening. And lots of other pundits — on the left and right — agree. Her strong debate performance will cause many voters, donors, and political pundits to give her candidacy a second look, and could propel her onto the main stage for future debates.

Fiorina is an unorthodox presidential candidate with an interesting life story. In the 1990s, she broke the glass ceiling to become one of the first women to lead a Fortune 500 company. But she had a rocky tenure there and was fired after six years on the job. Since then, she's battled cancer and made an unsuccessful run for US Senate.

Fiorina argues that her experience running a Fortune 500 company gives her executive skills and an outsider's perspective that would be valuable in the presidency. But she still faces an uphill battle to convince voters to choose her over candidates with a more conventional background in elected office.

What did Carly Fiorina say in the debate?

With no experience in elected office and a limited base of political support, Fiorina has fared poorly in the polls, so she was not able to participate in Thursday's prime time debate. Instead, she was relegated to the earlier debate alongside long shots like George Pataki, Jim Gilmore, and Lindsey Graham.

But her clear, confident answers to the moderators' questions, and her attacks on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, helped her stand out from the crowd.

"Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi, she lies about emails," Fiorina said. "She is still defending Planned Parenthood. And she is still her party's frontrunner."

Fiorina also attacked Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

"I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race," she said. "Maybe it's because I hadn't given money to the foundation or donated to his wife's Senate campaign."

Fiorina was widely hailed as the winner of the early debate by pundits. "Carly Fiorina won the ‘Happy Hour’ debate. By a lot," gushed the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. Chris Wallace and George Will on Fox News both concurred.

Who is Carly Fiorina?

(Grabowsky/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Fiorina is best known as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina was named to that post in 1999, after two decades as an executive at AT&T and its spinoff, Lucent. Her appointment to run HP instantly made her one of the most prominent women in the business world.

Almost immediately, Fiorina became a polarizing figure at HP and in the technology industry more generally. She was the first outsider to take the helm of the company and also the first non-engineer, causing some HP veterans to wonder if she could really understand the company's engineering-centric culture. Fiorina's supporters, by contrast, saw bringing an outsider to the firm as a perfect way to shake up the company's insular culture.

And Fiorina wasted no time in shaking up HP. Her biggest move was to acquire one of the company's biggest rivals, Compaq. Fiorina argued that the deal would cement HP's leadership of the computer industry, but critics — including Walter Hewlett, the son of co-founder William — argued that HP was hitching itself to a company with poor growth prospects, and that integrating the two huge companies would be expensive and distracting. Fiorina won a shareholder vote to approve the merger by a razor-thin margin, and the merger was completed in 2002.

Even with a decade of hindsight, it's hard to say for sure who was right about the merger. Combining the two companies did prove difficult and expensive, just as critics predicted. Fiorina lost the support of her board — and her job — in 2005. "I was fired in a boardroom brawl," Fiorina said earlier this year.

HP's stock price fell from around $50 when she took over HP in 1999 to around $20 when she left her job in 2005. But of course that decline isn't entirely Fiorina's fault — technology companies in general were struggling during the later years of Fiorina's tenure.

Does Fiorina have political experience?

In 2010, two successful Republican businesswomen ran high office in California. Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, ran for governor. Fiorina ran to represent California in the US Senate. Both women lost.

Fiorina ran against incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). She ran in a good year for Republicans — it was the year a Tea Party wave gave Republicans control of the House — but she was running in heavily Democratic California against a popular incumbent. Boxer also tried to make Fiorina's tenure at HP as a liability, repeatedly mentioning her decisions to lay off 30,000 HP workers.

Fiorina's campaign featured what was probably the strangest and most baffling ad of the 2010 election cycle. It portrayed her primary opponent, Tom Campbell, as a "demon sheep," complete with glowing red eyes:

Boxer beat Fiorina by a 52-to-42 margin. You might not expect a losing Senate campaign to be the model for a presidential run five years later, but that's exactly how Fiorina sees it today.

"When I entered the California Senate race one year before the election — bold, because I had just finished chemotherapy — all the polls and all the pundits said I didn’t have a shot," she said in April. "I lost the general election, but I won more Republican votes, more Democratic votes, and more independent votes than virtually anyone else running anywhere in the country that year."