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.