There’s no one with more to prove at the second Republican presidential debate than Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina's standout performance at the “happy hour” debate hosted by Fox News hosted last month for lower-tier GOP candidates sent her poll numbers surging. Her campaign moved aggressively to take advantage -- lobbying CNN, host of the next debate on September 16, to change its criteria to allow her into the main show. The efforts paid off, and the former Hewlett-Packard executive snagged a spot in the prime time forum.
Now, she’s got to prove she's up to the task – this time with tougher competition, higher stakes, and Donald Trump making things much more challenging.
“She’s got to come out and perform at the same very high level and show that she deserves her place at the table,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson told msnbc. “People expect a lot from her now so she needs to go in there ready to play, ready to be noticed.”
Fiorina says she’s “not at all” concerned about contending with a tougher group: “I think the more people see me actually and hear me, the more they think, you know, she really can be president of the United States,” Fiorina told NBC News on Wednesday.
Her biggest hurdle in this debate will of course be Trump, whose indefatigable popularity and remarkable ability to hog the spotlight have confounded his fellow Republican hopefuls.
“You’re going to know how successful she is by the degree Donald Trump is attacking her time at Hewlett Packard,” Wilson said. “That’ll be a good tell of how well she’s doing, is how crazy Donald Trump goes.”
During the August debate, one of the most memorable lines of the night was Fiorina’s zinger about Trump’s friendship with the Clintons.
“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race. Did any of you get a call? I didn’t,” she quipped.
“This time, he’s actually going to be on the stage and can punch back,” said Aaron Kall, the Director of Debate at the University of Michigan. Trump fired off an insulting tweet a few days later, signaling he’s ready to battle her, too.
Fiorina will also need to contend with another surging political newcomer, Dr. Ben Carson -- whose likability and charm also gave him a great post-debate boost. Polls show Carson gaining on Trump in Iowa, the all important first voting state.
The fact that she's the sole woman in the GOP contest offers both an advantage and a potential hurdle on the debate stage.
“There’s almost a double standard for women in debates, you’ve got to be aggressive but you can’t be too aggressive,” said Todd Graham, the director of debate at Southern Illinois University. But if she can maintain the humor and clever lines she displayed in the first debate, he said, she’ll strike the right balance.
Going after Trump might just pay off in terms of exposure, too: while each candidate is only looking at “maybe 7-8 minutes of total airtime” during the two-hour debate, Kall said “if you do attack [Trump], you may get 10-15 minutes.”