Washington (AFP) - Move over, gentlemen.
Republican hopeful Carly Fiorina may have just catapulted herself into the presidential campaign's top tier with a commanding performance in the debut debate of the 2016 race.
Fiorina is the only Republican woman in the race, a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard whose lacks national name recognition but who insists she would be the best counterweight to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
She got a dramatic bump in exposure after a star turn in a debate Thursday in Cleveland, where campaign experts agreed she exhibited masterful poise and command of the issues, spoke articulately and aggressively against Clinton, and essentially stole the show.
She fired a stunning rebuke at frontrunner Donald Trump, noting that unlike the brash billionaire: "I didn't get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race."
She demanded stronger leadership in the White House, "which sometimes requires a tough call in a tough time," and explained how she would stand up to hardliners in Iran.
And she conveyed her personal story of how she "started as a secretary" and ultimately became boss of the largest technology firm on the planet.
Crisply dressed in a dusky rose skirt-suit, Fiorina "owned the stage," Republican strategist Karl Rove gushed on Fox News.
The broadcaster, which carries influence with conservative Americans, aired both a heated prime-time debate of the top 10 candidates as well as a "Happy-hour" event featuring seven lower-polling candidates.
The Washington Post declared Fiorina and Senator Marco Rubio -- who was on the main stage -- the night's big winners.
"Next time she will belong in the top tier," one-time Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, describing Fiorina as "reliably on-point" and "gutsy."
Fiorina said the 2016 race will boil down to "a fight between conservatism and a Democrat Party that is undermining the very character of this nation.
"We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who can not stumble before he even gets into the ring."
Fiorina was the top searched name among those in the early debate, according to Google Trends.
- 'Big opportunity for me' -
A Google survey showed that of the candidates on the undercard, Fiorina was by far the one viewers wanted to see on the main stage, more than doubling her nearest rival, former Texas governor Rick Perry.
"Last night was a big opportunity for me," Fiorina acknowledged to CNN early Friday.
"It's fair to say this morning a lot more people know who I am and that I'm running for president."
Fiorina, who is 60 and a breast cancer survivor, is a former advisor to defeated 2008 Republican nominee John McCain.
She may have hurdles to overcome. She helmed HP for six years until 2005, when she was forced to resign after the company's share price plummeted. Democratic officials have accused her of outsourcing US jobs abroad.
And in 2010, Fiorina ran an unsuccessful bid to unseat California's long-serving Senator Barbara Boxer.
Fiorina is now aiming to do battle against a more powerful adversary in Clinton. On Thursday she attacked the Democratic frontrunner, saying she "lies about Benghazi, she lies about emails," referring to two scandals Clinton has been unable to shake.
Perry revealed his own Carly crush in the midst of the debate, when asked how he would handle Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
"I would a whole lot rather have had Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiation than John Kerry," he said of Obama's secretary of state.
Former senator Rick Santorum, who like Fiorina was registering less than two percent support on average before the debates, also expressed his admiration on Monday.
Asked which woman he might want to see depicted on the next $20 bill, Santorum quipped "Carly's a pretty good choice."