When Carly Fiorina was asked about Donald Trump in the first GOP debate, she had a cutting answer ready:

“I didn’t get a phone call from Bill Clinton before I jumped in the race,” she said dryly. “Maybe it’s because I hadn’t given money to the foundation or donated to his wife’s Senate campaign. ... Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care and on abortion, I would just ask, what are the principles by which he will govern?”

Trump wasn’t there to respond, because Fiorina had been relegated to the undercard debate. But her jab didn’t escape Trump’s notice.

“Carly was a little nasty to me,” Trump said after the debate. “Be careful, Carly. Be careful.”

Thanks to her breakout debate performance and subsequent rise in the polls, Fiorina has now earned a chance to tangle with Trump and the other top-tier candidates on the main stage.

A new Monmouth University poll finds that 67 percent of Republican voters say we need “a president from outside government who can bring a new approach to Washington,” while just 26 percent want “someone with government experience who knows how to get things done.”

Little wonder that in Iowa, Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are tied with 23 percent of the vote each, while Fiorina is in third with 10 percent — meaning a 56 percent majority is backing candidates who have never held elective office.

“It’s a surprise apparently to many in the media that voters are tired of the professional political class, but it’s not a surprise to me,” Fiorina says in an interview. “When I launched my candidacy, I was asked over and over again, ‘Well, how can you run for the presidency? You’re not a politician.’ And I said, ‘It’s my greatest asset.’ Maybe the media didn’t understand that then, but I did. People are sick of politics as usual and they’re tired of politicians.”

Fiorina is the least well known of the outsiders leading the polls — 43 percent of the GOP electorate still does not know enough about her to give an opinion of her — which means she is well positioned for a breakout performance.

“Going into [the last] debate, less than 40 percent of Republicans had ever heard my name,” she says. “So first, it was an opportunity to introduce myself. But I think second, what people saw was, ‘You know what, this lady could be president.’ ”

Fiorina has one credential the other outsiders in the race can’t match: foreign policy experience. She has a top level security clearance and served as a member and then chairwoman of the CIA’s External Advisory Board from 2007 to 2009 — an eventful period during which the United States launched the surge in Iraq, Russia invaded Georgia and Israel launched a secret airstrike destroying Syria’s nuclear program.

Fiorina’s grasp of national security issues was on display when she and Trump were both quizzed on foreign policy by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week.

Trump could not explain the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah and had no clue what Iran’s notorious Quds Force was — confusing it with the Kurds.

Fiorina, by contrast, aced the test.

Trump likes to boast of how smart he is, but Fiorina can boast of a Stanford University degree in medieval history and philosophy.

“I was so into it that I did all my research for my honors thesis in the original Greek and Latin,” she says. “I like a challenge.”

After graduating, she says, she was unemployable. She found a job as a secretary — and rose to become chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, one of the biggest technology firms in the country.

Now she’s challenging the political status quo — and she believes she can overtake the outsiders ahead of her. She’s not intimidated by Trump’s commanding lead.

“If you look at the polling data at this same time last cycle, [Rick] Perry was at like 28 percent and [Mitt] Romney was far below him,” she says. “What I know is that having started out with the lowest name ID in the field, the more people see me, the more people hear me, the more people listen to me, the more people support me.”

Now Americans will have a chance to see her, hear her and listen to her.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.