Can Carly overcome the Romney problem on her HP record?

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California.
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Carly Fiorina's strong debate performance launched her close to the top of the most recent GOP primary poll. But her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard suggests she is not likely to stay there.

Fiorina came to the debate prepared to defend that record, arguing that she "doubled the size of the company, we quadrupled its topline growth rate, we quadrupled its cash flow, we tripled its rate of innovation."

These were clever and crisply delivered talking points for a debate audience not likely to drill down into the details of what they meant. But as Josh Barro and others have noted, the top line is not what matters. It's the bottom line that counts and by that measure Fiorina's decision at HP to buy Compaq, a dying computer maker, was a complete disaster that crushed the combined company's stock and produced virtually no profit.

Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina speaks during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015.
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Fiorina also went after one of her biggest critics—Jeffrey Sonnenfeld—in the debate after Donald Trump cited the Yale management professor's work criticizing the former HP CEO. Fiorina dismissed Sonnenfeld as a "well-known Clintonite."

The problem is that Sonnenfeld, who fired back in an essay for Politico, has the facts on his side: "In the five years that Fiorina was at Hewlett Packard, the company lost over half its value," Sonnenfeld wrote. "During Fiorina's tenure, thanks to the Compaq deal, profits fell, employees were laid off and value plummeted. Fiorina was paid over $100 million for this accomplishment."

The only big stock gain under Fiorina's tenure was the 7 percent boost after she was fired by a unanimous board vote.

All of these facts helped sink Fiorina's attempt to defeat Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in 2010, a terrible year overall for Democrats. Boxer wound up crushing Fiorina 52.1 percent to 42.1 percent after the incumbent savaged Fiorina's corporate record of layoffs and HP's sinking share price.

Should Fiorina sustain her position in Republican polls, rival candidates will have a field day with that record, making the case that the last thing the GOP wants to do is nominate another Mitt Romney, whom Democrats successfully eviscerated for banking tens of millions of dollars while slashing jobs as a Bain Capital executive.

Fiorina has also rightly taken heavy criticism in recent days for describing a gruesome scene in a Planned Parenthood video that people who have seen all the videos say does not exist. Her answer on abortion and the Planned Parenthood videos thrilled conservatives. But if it does turn out she made the whole thing up, it's going to hurt her over the long term.

Republican voters are clearly hungry for a nonpolitician who will hammer President Barack Obama and current Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in savage and entertaining ways. And as Trump's policy-free "Make America Great Again" shtick fades and his lack of depth on issues becomes clearer with every debate, Fiorina is quickly sliding into the top spot. She easily vaulted over retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who seems to do well in retail politics but comes across in debates as extremely mild-mannered and reasonable, not a great approach in the reality-TV cauldron of the 2016 GOP presidential race.

Chris Christie.
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On closer inspection, many of Fiorina's other answers at the CNN debate, while delivered with absolute confidence and precision, fall apart upon closer inspection, as Vox's Ezra Klein noted. There is also the matter of Fiorina lacking much of a campaign infrastructure or a core of major donors. The former CEO is working frantically to address these problems. But turning a strong debate performance into a winning campaign, especially given the tough sales job she faces over her corporate record, is going to be a challenge that Fiorina likely won't be able to overcome.

All of this suggests that the GOP nominee will still likely emerge from the field of more traditional politicians struggling to ride out the early wave of desire for a different kind of candidate. It does not seem likely to be Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is now languishing near zero in the polls. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has the money to stay in the race until the end and his donors continue to believe he will be the last man standing.

But if Republicans are looking for a fresher face who has also performed extraordinarily well at both debates, they may wind up settling on Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator came in fourth in the post-debate CNN poll with 11 percent, trailing just Trump, Fiorina and Carson. His debate answers were also detailed, crisp and delivered without the same easily exploited errors that riddled Fiorina's responses. Rubio also has a strong donor base and a deep pocketed backer in billionaire auto dealer Norman Braman capable of pumping millions into the Florida senator's super PAC.

There is still a long way to go before GOP voters settle on a nominee—and a chance it could go all the way to the convention. But so far, 2016 looks a lot like 2012, when primary voters flirted with a number of unlikely candidates (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich) before doing what they usually do and nominating the establishment choice.

This time could certainly be different, but history at least usually rhymes. And Fiorina's biggest selling point—her record as a business executive—could easily wind up being her undoing.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.