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Good debate: Is Carly ready for more spotlight?

Five years ago, following her defeat in the California Senate race against Sen. Barbara Boxer, Carly Fiorina made an unusual relocation choice for a failed political candidate licking her wounds: She moved to D.C.

The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive had, in that 2010 election, seen her business record shredded to pieces; her conservatism poked to swiss cheese; and, following a 10-point defeat, her career in politics consigned to the dustbin.

But from her new perch in nation's capital (or, more precisely, the Virginia suburbs) Fiorina commenced a methodical effort to gain a second shot: She took over for Good360, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the donation of excess merchandise to charities; she started a political action committee Unlocking Potential Project, designed to engage female Republican voters and support female GOP candidates; and she was tapped to chair the American Conservative Union, whose annual political scorecard has long been used to distinguish the purity of the political right.

Read MoreFiorina wins buzz after debate

Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina responds to a question at a Fox-sponsored forum for lower polling candidates held before the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina responds to a question at a Fox-sponsored forum for lower polling candidates held before the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015.

Since announcing her presidential exploratory committee in November, Fiorina has continued to take a nose-to-the-grindstone approach. She has taken her message to numerous audiences on the ground in Iowa, to "The View" and to midday cable, all the while receiving consistently positive reviews for her ability to articulate her politics.

She impressed at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January. She impressed at CPAC in February. She impressed at the Iowa Lincoln Day Dinner in May.

And yet, for all this impressing, Fiorina has thus far had little to show for it in the polls—averaging less than 3 percent in Iowa, despite campaigning there as hard as any other candidate.

So it was on Thursday night in Ohio that Fiorina impressed yet again, with a commanding and unanimous victory in Fox's second-tier "Happy Hour" presidential primary debate. Her clarity of message stood in stark contrast not only to ho-hummers on stage with her, but to the prime-time debate field, which could barely untangle its swords long enough to take a swipe at the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Fiorina, meanwhile, had no such difficulties.

"Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi, she lies about emails, she is still defending Planned Parenthood, and she is still the frontrunner," Fiorina said, as she concluded her sortie of attacks on Clinton. "2016 is going to be a fight between conservatism and a Democrat party that is undermining the very character of this nation."

As the only clear victor in either of Thursday's debates, Fiorina seems quite likely to land on the main stage next month, when the candidates gather for their second debate in her former home state of California.

The homecoming storyline alone will put an additional spotlight on Fiorina—and could well awaken some of familiar attacks on her business and conservative records from 2010.

"She was attacked from day one when she ran for the U.S. Senate, and she will have to figure out some really good responses [this time]," said Beth A. Miller, who served as a senior adviser to Fiorina's Senate campaign.

Responses, that is, to the questions of what happened during her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, where she was forced out in 2005 after overseeing 30,000 layoffs during her six-year reign.

This served as the primary fodder of the entire 2010 race—and threatens to rear its head again, should Fiorina pop too quickly.

"In a lot of ways we approach this with completely fresh eyes," Fiorina's deputy campaign manager, Sarah Isgur Flores, told CNBC.com in an interview in June. "It wasn't that I didn't look back to watch the demons, but I didn't spend a lot of time."

When pressed by reporters, Fiorina has increasingly tried to frame this experience as one of hard choices and tough leadership. But as a lower-tier candidate in a crowded scrum, she has yet to be pressed that hard.

If 2012 was any guide, the 17-person Republican field will likely see many takeoffs and crash landings this cycle, but the businesslike approach of Fiorina over the last five years suggests a certain staying power. There is ample reason why the party at large would want her to stick around.

"There is also the advantage for some of the other candidates running to keep her in there, because she does level really strong hard hits on Hillary Clinton," said Miller, "where, if her opponents on the Republican side took as aggressive a posture (toward) Hillary, you get a lot of this middle-aged white guy beating up on a woman."

For these reasons, a number of GOP operatives and political pundits have measured Fiorina up as a running mate, a notion that offends some of her supporters.

"The widespread idea that Carly has set her sights on the VP slot is both irritating and eyebrow raising, especially when it's voiced by women's-advancement-oriented female devotees of the word "feminism,'" former Fiorina staffer Liz Mair wrote in a recent commentary for the Daily Beast.

"Wouldn't begin to put her in any second-tier slot," Stuart Stevens, former chief strategist for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, told CNBC.com on Thursday night. "No reason she couldn't win."