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ATLANTA -- As Carly Fiorina stood at the back of a packed hotel ballroom Friday to give a television interview, a gaggle of conservative activists watched, chattered and snapped pictures as if she were a Hollywood celebrity.
Minutes later, more than 1,000 people at the annual political confab RedState Gathering stood and roared as the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive took the stage and delivered an impassioned speech on the virtues of conservatism.
"Well, I don't know. I think we kind of rumbled last night. What do you think?" Fiorina said. "I had a lot of fun last night."
The night might turn out to be the one that changes her place in the 2016 race for president.
A day after a strong performance in the pre-debate debate for those relegated to second-tier status by Fox News' assessment of the national polls, Fiorina was reveling in rave reviews for her aggressive approach.
In her first campaign stop since, the admitted longshot candidate — she has never held public office — embraced the prospect of new momentum for her underfunded campaign. She told the crowd at RedState that Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all were once regarded as quixotic candidates.
"You know why all of those men served as president?" she asked. "Because people decided they wanted them to win."
Fiorina told the crowd that her experience in the private sector and ability to sell conservatism without the baggage of being a long-serving politician set her apart in a field replete with current and former senators and governors.
"People get captured by a system they've been in for too long," she said, adding that "people who protect the status quo most aggressively are people who have benefited most from it."
The best hope, she said, is someone who is not from the status quo "but who can see it, who understands it and who has the courage to change it."
While Fiorina, 60, doesn't always mention that she's the only woman running for the Republican nomination, she has built her early campaign around broadsides against Hillary Rodham Clinton — even going so far as to shadow the Democrats' 2016 favorite at campaign stops around the country.
"We're going to have to have a nominee who throws every punch, who will not ever pull her punches," Fiorina said Friday, continuing her attacks on Clinton's record as secretary of state.
She also said Republicans must steel themselves for a bruising campaign against Democratic Party policies that are "crushing the potential of this nation" and "entangle people's lives in a web of dependency."
Democrats play "identity politics," Fiorina said, promising she would counter with "the truth that Democrats are bad for women, bad for African-Americans, bad for Hispanics, bad for economic growth."
Fiorina lost her only other bid for public office, a 2010 effort to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in California. Before that, she rose from a job as a secretary to become the first female chief executive of a Fortune 20 company before the Hewlett-Packard board of directors forced her out in 2005.
As of mid-July, Fiorina had reported raising $1.4 million for her campaign, while an outside group said it raised $3.4 million to back her.
The combined total could finance a credible governor's race in most small to mid-size states, but it falls far short of what a presidential candidate needs to hire a full staff and buy television time across multiple primary states.
But Fiorina has hopes that will change, and Erick Erickson, the conservative radio commentator who hosts the RedState Gathering, warned against dismissing her.
"When I heard that Carly Fiorina was running for president, I gotta tell ya, I wondered, 'Is she running for president or vice president?'" Erickson said. "But, holy cow ... no doubt about it, she's running for president."
Loren Heal, a factory worker from Neoga, Illinois, said he came to the conference viewing Fiorina only as "our antidote to Hillary." Now, he said, "She's on my short list" of preferred nominees in her own right.
Jerry Landers, a lawyer from Marietta, Georgia, added: "I think she gets promoted to the main stage. You can't relegate her to second-class status anymore."