CLEVELAND – Conservatives embraced Carly Fiorina in the early evening debate on Thursday, as fans drowned out some of her answers with whoops and cheers.
Despite national polling that mirrors cellar-dwelling candidates like former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (who was greeted by the watch party with a shouted “who?”) the former Hewlett Packard CEO emerged as a fan favorite at a packed watch party sponsored by the American Conservatives Union at the House of Blues just down the street from the Quicken Loans Arena where the debates are being held.
“We have a winner and it’s Carly Fiorina,” Townhall.com’s Guy Benson told the crowd during a panel discussion after the first debate.
Minnesota Republicans Jim and Lisa Hudson told msnbc Fiorina was the standout candidate of the night.
"She was so well prepared," Jim Hudson said.
"I didn't know her very well before, but she did very well" Lisa Hudson added. "She answered the questions, and didn't go off on tangents."
Fiorina stood out as strong, articulate, and prepared. Her quips delighted the crowd just as much as her policy proposals. And in the aftermath of the debate Google Trends showed a pronounced spike in online searches for her.
“I didn’t get phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race, did any of you?” she coyly asked the other candidates, referring to the news that the former president had phoned Trump ahead of his presidential announcement. She approached Trump’s dominance in national polls with a sort of bemused respect, getting in a well-received zing without detracting from his supporters.
Fiorina’s policy answers – virtually unchanged from recent interviews – found fertile ground, too.
"On day one in the Oval Office, I would make two phone calls. The first one would be to my good friend, Bibi Netanyahu, to reassure him we will stand with the State of Israel," she declared. "The second will be to the supreme leader of Iran. He might not take my phone call, but he would get the message, and the message is this: Until you open every nuclear and every military facility to full, open, anytime/anywhere, for real, inspections, we are going to make it as difficult as possible for you to move money around the global financial system."
Her momentum was obvious to the other candidates; at one point, former Gov. Rick Perry suggested her as a possible Secretary of State. “I would rather have Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiations than John Kerry,” he said, earning some of his loudest cheers of the evening.
North Carolina resident Melissa Gott said she was looking forward to seeing Perry and Fiorina in the debates; afterwards, she said Fiorina’s performance had earned her respect.
“Carly,” she said beaming, as she left the watch party to attend the main debate.
Nadine Klimzak said Fiorina was a clear favorite.
"They all reflected our values, hopes, and interests, but I particularly felt Carly Fiorina did the best," she told msnbc. "I'm strongly considering her."
Asked if someone on the prime-time debate could best Fiorina tonight, Klimzak said, "I'll have to sleep on it."
Fiorina later spoke at the ACU watch party to a rapt audience that cried out her name as she walked on stage. Her remarks combined her usual stump speech with more candid comments reflecting on the debate.
Sen. Rick Santorum spoke after her, but the crowd was visibly less enthused. At one point, cries of "Carly! Carly! Carly!" broke out during his address. When he asked the crowd whether midterm or presidential elections were harder to win (referring the larger, at times more liberal turnout presidential elections draw) but had to ask twice to get an answer from the tepid crowd.
Meanwhile, at the Red State gathering in Atlanta, where much of the GOP presidential field will speak over the next two days, attendees buzzed about Fiorina's performance. There were oohs and ahhs from some bargoers as Fox News showed a straw poll with over 80% of respondents naming her the winner.
Erick Erickson, who moderated a pre-debate town hall, called her the clear winner of the first debate — to applause from the crowd -- while panelist Kate Pavlich of Townhall praised her for taking on Donald Trump and for embracing her opportunity in the less debate rather than whining about the requirements for the main one.