WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Once among the most powerful women in American business, Carly Fiorina emerged as a leading contender in the 2016 Republican presidential campaign alongside Donald Trump, another outsider from the corporate world.
Fiorina’s performance in the party’s Wednesday night debate elicited praise on social media and from political strategists as she commanded the stage equally with the likes of billionaire Trump, 69, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, 62.
CNN, which hosted the prime-time debate, said it drew 22.9 million viewers, making it the most watched program in the cable news network’s 35-year-old history.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO, Fiorina, 61, was one of Trump’s strongest challengers from 10 candidates anxious to pile on the real-estate mogul who leads opinion polls.
At one point, she got into a fracas with Trump over her record at HP, the information technology company, and lectured him about the U.S. Constitution.
“Carly won it,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington. “She was passionate and tough.”
Fiorina spoke nearly the longest, and according to a Thomson Reuters measure of social media mentions she was the second most tweeted candidate with 19,400 tweets following Trump with 35,312.
Fiorina’s campaign for the November 2016 White House race had been slow to get off the ground and she was a late addition to the second prime-time Republican debate.
She took a victory lap on the TV shows on Thursday morning.
“This is an important election and we are going to have a fight about really important principles and really important policies and really important differences. And so if you can’t fight on a debate stage, then you are not going to be able to stand up and fight for the American people,” Fiorina told CNN.
A breast cancer survivor who lost a stepdaughter to drug addiction, Fiorina was forced out of HP in 2005 amid weak earnings as the company struggled to digest a $19 billion merger with computer maker Compaq.
After her ouster from HP, she was dubbed the “anti-Steve Jobs” by respected tech news website InfoWorld.
In 2010, she lost the election for a U.S. Senate seat in California to Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, failing to benefit from a wave of pro-Republican sentiment nationally.
At Wednesday’s debate in Simi Valley, California, Fiorina rebuked Trump for his comment in an interview that voters might not back her because of her face.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said, drawing applause at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The outspoken Trump said early polls showed he had won the debate but he acknowledged that Fiorina had a good outing. “I think Carly did well ... but I didn’t see it as standout,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show.
Fiorina argues that as a woman she will be in a unique position to challenge Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton if each wins her party’s nomination.
She attacked Clinton’s handling of the Syrian civil war when she served as America’s top diplomat from 2009-2013.
“When we do not lead, the world becomes a more dangerous and more tragic place. The failure in Syria lies at the feet of President (Barack) Obama and Secretary of State Clinton,” she told MSNBC.
Reuters/Ipsos opinion polling before the debate showed Trump leading the 2016 race among Republicans with 32 percent. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was second at 15 percent followed by Bush at 9 percent. Fiorina shared 10th place at 1.9 percent.
Fiorina’s social media score - a computation of the skew between positive and negative tweets - placed her in the top four of the candidates at the debate. Her score averaged 6.3 to Trump’s 8.3.
Carson finished atop the sentiment ranks with a score of 10.4, although he garnered less than half the traffic seen by Fiorina. Bush’s social media score was barely in the positive territory.
For more on the 2016 presidential race, see the Reuters blog, “Tales from the Trail.”
Writing by Alistair Bell; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Mohammad Zargham, Angela Moon and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Howard Goller