What Does Carly Fiorina Want?
At a Manhattan homeless shelter a few weeks ago, a woman nearly recognized Carly Fiorina.
“You’re somebody,” the woman said, as Fiorina tells the story. “Aren’t you running for something?”
Once outed as a likely candidate for president, Fiorina listened to the woman complain about politicians being out of touch with Americans: “She said, ‘Those politicians are way up there, and they talk in their own language and they don’t care about us, except what they’re doing up there lands on us down here.’ That’s a pretty succinct definition of what the American people feel.”
Fiorina related the story Thursday at a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor to make the point that her Washington-outsider status makes her uniquely qualified to run for president.
“While there are many who think you can’t run for president unless you’ve been in politics all your life, I think there are many who think ‘Yay!’-- someone who might run for president who hasn’t been in politics all their life,” Fiorina said.
But the anecdote also illustrated what could be at once Fiorina’s greatest asset and most daunting challenge: She has never won an election, and her national brand remains infinitesimal.
Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a one-time candidate for Senate in California, has spent the last six months making regular appearances on Fox News and in the key presidential primary states, hoping to lay the foundation for a long-shot presidential campaign.
In so doing, Fiorina has filled a key hole for Republicans as the sole woman seeking the party’s nomination in an election cycle wherein the Republican nominee will likely face off against Hillary Clinton.
“It’s obviously not a secret that Republicans have struggled finding quality women to run for president,” said strategist Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Fiorina right now is also playing the role of Clinton attacker in chief, and I don’t think that’s an insignificant role.”
Fiorina has indeed recognized that she does not need to play by the same rules as Republican men in criticizing Clinton, and she has taken full advantage. On Thursday, Fiorina suggested that, if nominated by Republicans, she could prevent Clinton from using the “gender card.”
“I think that if Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” Fiorina said Thursday. “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card. And so, what she will have to run on is her track record, her accomplishments, her candor and trustworthiness and her policies.”
But Fiorina will likely never take on Hillary Clinton for the presidency because Fiorina consistently polls in the low single digits, and she will face one of the most competitive Republican primary fields in many years. The apparent gap between Fiorina’s investment in her bid and the return on that investment has caused political pundits to begin to ask: What is she actually running for?
With many unlikely candidates that have come before, the answer has been to vie for vice president, to promote a book, or to snag a Fox News contract after the election.
With Fiorina, none of these explanations seems to quite fit.
“She doesn’t really have too much else to do right now,” mused one senior Republican operative. “It’s a way to stay out there and stay relevant.”
“Carly Fiorina is not the type of person who is going to sit on the couch eating Doritos watching football on the weekends,” another operative, who has signed on with a competing Republican campaign, said. “She always has to be doing something and she has to be doing it effectively at a high level at all times.”
But being dismissed before a race is run is also familiar political territory for Fiorina. In 2010, California Republicans picked Fiorina to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was the heavy favorite to win in deep blue California.
What people tend to remember about the contest is Fiorina’s sound defeat by Boxer, 52 percent to 42 percent, along with Fiorina’s quirky “Demon Sheep” ad during the Republican primary.
What is often forgotten is that Fiorina was able to win 42 percent of the vote with a strikingly conservative platform relative to the California norm, a strategy that she now says will inform her approach should she run for president.
At the beginning of the Senate contest, as now, “all the polls and pundits said I didn’t have a shot, didn’t have a chance,” Fiorina said Thursday.
But she won a competitive Republican primary immediately following treatment for breast cancer, and then ran in the general election as a pro-life, pro-gun candidate with a platform focusing on economic issues.
“So, why raise that? Because a conservative can win with moderates as well as conservatives,” Fiorina said. “A conservative can reach independents and Democrats.”
What Democrats raised during Fiorina’s Senate bid was the question of her record at Hewlett-Packard, where she was fired with a $21 million severance package after six years as CEO. Boxer accused Fiorina of having outsourced jobs and reminded voters of Fiorina’s inauspicious departure from the company.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this week, these questions resurfaced. “Are you really the right person to be criticizing Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments or lack thereof?” host Mika Brzezinski asked Fiorina.
With 12 Republicans polling ahead of her, Fiorina might not even make it to a debate stage to make her case to a wider audience of potential voters.
Still, many Republicans agree that she is so far running a deft campaign with the tools at her disposal. As chairman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, Fiorina was ubiquitous at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, an important stage for Republican candidates for president. And she has made frequent trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to meet with voters.
During a recent trip to South Carolina, Fiorina visited with Gov. Nikki Haley, who afterward tweeted that Fiorina is “not to be underestimated.”
“She has a lot to offer more than being a woman,” said one Republican operative who has signed on with Fiorina’s likely campaign. “I think when people start listening to her, and start understanding the details of her life and her abilities, you’re going to see her climbing among the ranks of the candidates.”
If public polling doesn’t favor Fiorina, it is not uncommon to hear Fiorina invoked favorably by Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire in the same breath as some of the GOP frontrunners. Voters often express surprise at her strong showing and say she has exceeded their expectations.
In the Granite State last month, after Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke at the popular “Politics and Eggs” breakfast, Jim Adams, chairman of the group Granite State Taxpayers, said he had been “as impressed” with Fiorina when she spoke in the same setting one month prior.
“Everybody says Carly doesn’t have a chance, she doesn’t have name recognition,” Adams said, unsolicited. “But she’s very sharp.”