Carly Fiorina distinguishes herself on debate stage

Carly Fiorina, responding to a question about Donald Trump’s now-infamous crack about her appearance, responded with a direct jab that left the bombastic billionaire almost speechless.

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said, prompting one of the loudest cheers of the night.

Trump, stumbling for a response, said: “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and she’s a beautiful woman.”

Fiorina stared straight ahead, expressionless.

For a second time in a row, Fiorina showed her prowess for distinguishing herself from her foes on the debate stage. But she wasn’t alone.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, didn’t speak as much as some of the other candidates, but presented himself as a sober-minded pol with foreign policy know-how — and he even took a jab at Trump’s fitness to be commander-in-chief, something he has largely avoided on the campaign trail. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who has been fading in the polls, showcased an angry and assertive style that allowed him to elbow his way into the crowded debate.

READ: Fiorina, Christie take aim at Planned Parenthood at GOP debate

And Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whose debate performance was widely panned in August, had several spirited back-and-forth exchanges with Trump, even demanding that the billionaire businessman apologize for previously invoking his wife Columba. Even Trump seemed surprised.

“More energy tonight — I like that,” Trump said to Bush.

Whether any of this changes the complexion of what’s been an unpredictable race so far remains to be seen. But in the three-hour CNN debate from the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, many of the candidates espoused plenty of tough rhetoric that they could later turn into campaign ads.

Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief, was able to showcase a mix of anger at Planned Parenthood, got in repeated testy exchanges with Trump, took a punch from Christie and punched back.

“You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people’s money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy not once, not twice, four times, a record four times,” Fiorina said to Trump. “Why should we trust you to manage the finances?”

“I never filed for bankruptcy,” Trump said, pushing back.

READ: Let the sparks fly: Carly Fiorina takes on Donald Trump

Fiorina, however, was clearly getting under her foes’ skins – particularly as she repeatedly sought to get the attention of debate moderator Jake Tapper.

“Jake, Jake, may I just say,” Fiorina repeatedly said.

Indeed, when Christie interjected to push back, he flashed his anger at Fiorina.

“You interrupt everyone else on this stage, you’re not going to interrupt me,” Christie fumed.

Rubio, the first-term Florida senator, sought to turn some of his liabilities into assets. He quickly listed off all the hot spots the next president faces around the world. After Trump whacked his poor attendance record in the Senate, he tried to make the case that he’s skipped votes in order to campaign for president and fix a broken Washington. And as Trump repudiated Bush for speaking Spanish rather than English on the campaign trail, Rubio — a son of Cuban immigrants — chimed in.

“I do give interviews in Spanish, and here’s why — because I believe that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to help people who are trying to achieve upward mobility,” Rubio said. “And if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me. Not from a translator at Univision.”

But the buzz at the end of the night largely stemmed from Fiorina’s debate performance.

In a discussion about marijuana legalization, Fiorina spoke personally about the death of a child due to drug addiction.

Then she later added: “The marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.”

The crowd laughed.