Fiorina Makes Hay at Iowa Parade
STORY CITY, Iowa — Carly Fiorina faced down two Iowans on Saturday, hoping to win them over, but suddenly realized her dilemma.
There were two little boys. And she had just one lollipop left.
“I’ve only got one. Want me to come back with another one?” she offered. The boys nodded. “All right, hold on. Where’s our group? We need another lollipop!”
On the morning of Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” event, a cattle call of sorts of Republican presidential candidates, Fiorina was marching in her first Iowa parade of the election cycle. But the pacing, interrupted by frequent stops to meet spectators, was proving to be a challenge — and she was separated from her group and its candy supply.
“Go, Carly!” another boy yelled to her, clapping.
“Hey, thank you!” she waved as she half-ran by. “We ran out of candy, we’ve got to go and get some more. Sorry.”
It was the annual Scandinavian Days parade, and Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO waging an underdog bid for president, was walking with the local Republican Party. Fiorina herself has no Scandinavian roots, but the event would expose her to a few hundred Iowans all at once.
At least, that was the plan.
Things had started out smoothly enough, with Fiorina walking beside the Story County GOP float and gripping a handful of candy to distribute along the route.
The “float” was a flatbed trailer, plastered on all sides with campaign signs and pulled by a Polaris Ranger utility vehicle. Speakers blasted two songs on a loop: “Proud To Be An American” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
“By the end of the day we’re going to have Journey PTSD,” laughed Sarah Isgur Flores, Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager.
Except we wouldn’t, because Fiorina spent all of two minutes walking with the float before it disappeared down the route as she shook hands.
She approached people with friendly introductions, often forgetting to mention her name. Meanwhile, any “Carly For America” campaign signs were at least a few yards ahead. But she pressed on, pressing palms.
“More and more people know me, but relatively speaking, my name I.D. is quite low, so we have to introduce ourselves,” Fiorina explained, before her Iowa state chairman, Christopher Rants, cut in.
“Carly, if I can stop you for just one minute, because that lady is rushing to get a picture with you,” Rants said.
Fiorina turned to see an older woman speed walking down the sidewalk behind parade spectators. “Oh! Don’t rush!” Fiorina yelled to her, and they connected for a photo.
If Republicans have in recent years become well accustomed to fatally flawed candidates with the muscular campaign apparatus to win the party nomination, Fiorina might be the opposite: a candidate with no political credentials, infrastructure, or name recognition whatsoever, but with real talent.
She is likable in person, polished on the stump, and precise answering questions. And she stands out in the Republican field as a non-politician and the sole woman — even if most people don’t know her name yet.
But in the states that matter most, Fiorina is gradually is making an impression, and she seems like a candidate on the edge of a breakout moment. In Iowa, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows her with 2.5 percent, just behind Rick Perry; in New Hampshire, she bests him with more than 3 percent. In a field that could ultimately bloat to 16 candidates, she’s keeping pace.
It hasn’t hurt Fiorina that she has emerged as the GOP field’s most effective critic of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Along the parade route, Jarrod Johnson, of Story City, yelled out his support for Fiorina as she walked by: “Go Carly! Beat Hillary!”
After they snapped a photo together, Johnson said Fiorina appealed to him because she has a strong command of the issues and she is not a politician. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to pick her.
“I would just say it’s early on,” Johnson said.
There are many Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere who are like Johnson: impressed with Fiorina and familiar with her, but uncommitted. Her campaign takes that as a positive sign.
“Iowans are pretty pragmatic, and I think sometimes they become a little more willing to vote for someone when they see that they’re a viable candidate,” said Rob White, who runs Fiorina’s Story County operation. “And I think Carly’s still at the stage where she hasn’t quite broken through yet, but she would have the potential.”
Although Fiorina has not held elected office, this is also not her first rodeo. She took on another steep political mountain in 2010, when she unsuccessfully ran for Senate in California.
Her experience from that race shows. Fiorina does nothing unintentionally: No words are wasted, no physical gestures are unchecked, every spent calorie is in service to the goal. Unlike many first-time presidential candidates, there is little that is raw or unpracticed about her.
The same might be said, disparagingly, of Clinton, and yet Fiorina has fashioned herself into Clinton’s ultimate foil among Republicans. As Republicans have faulted Clinton her personal ambition, they have lauded Fiorina for hers. Clinton, they say, is wealthy and out of touch, while Fiorina is neither lofty nor detached, in spite of her $59 million net worth.
But, on this stage, at least, Fiorina is an underdog, and a no-name candidate cannot afford to bypass questions or meet people four at a time in sterile settings. Frontrunners can pick their battles. Underdog candidates throw themselves at the American people and hope to stick.
With so many people to meet, however, Fiorina was again lagging halfway through the parade.
“What kind of dog is this? It’s adorable,” Fiorina cooed to one group, before scanning the route again for her float. “Uh oh, now I’m way behind.”
This time, Fiorina did not jog to catch up, but sidled up to a man driving a John Deere tractor in the parade. He motioned for her to hop up, and she did, pointing down the route toward the Story County GOP as if to say, step on it.
The optics were great, but the tractor wasn’t making up ground fast enough. A few minutes later, Fiorina hopped off and started to run.
“We’re way behind! We can go faster than the tractor,” she said, gracefully pumping her arms and speeding forward in her flats, as a few reporters and campaign staff stumbled to keep up.
“Hi! Hi! Hi!” Fiorina said in staccato as she flew by a block or two of spectators. Her elliptical workouts were paying off. “OK! We’re good! We’re good!”
Fiorina did not even break a sweat. But could she make breaking out of the Republican pack look as effortless?
“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” Fiorina said. “We’ve got to talk to people, we’ve got to be where they are, we’ve got to talk to them about what they care about, we’ve just got to keep working it. Hard.”
In 2012, Rick Santorum set a precedent for winning the Iowa caucuses by that model: sheer grit, hours logged and force of will. But that was a flash in the pan election, and Fiorina faces a historically bloated Republican field.
The size of the field matters for Fiorina because no matter how well she is performing in Iowa, only Republicans who rank in the top 10 in national polls will make it onto the stage at the first debate, hosted by Fox News in August.
There are dependable rhythms to the presidential primary states, and Iowa’s finicky caucus system encourages political zealotry and rewards the candidates who attract it: The candidates people will trudge out into sub-freezing temperatures and snow to support, for however many hours the process takes.
Fiorina’s allies in Iowa see in her the je ne sais quoi to win over precisely those people.
“To caucus, it takes commitment,” said Rants, her state chairman. “You have to have that connection.”
Speaking of, where was the candidate? Rants craned his neck to scan the parade route for Fiorina. “I’ve lost her again,” he sighed.
At the end of the route, Fiorina was reunited with the Story County GOP, and they took a photo on their float, commemorating their two minutes together before Fiorina got left behind.
“Alright, bye!” Fiorina waved to the group, and she was off and running again, not literally this time, to meet more Iowans, as many as possible, at Ernst’s event — where Fiorina’s speech would earn her a standing ovation, and she would stay until the very end, taking every selfie, shaking every hand.
But, on the parade route, Fiorina might have made her first unfulfilled campaign promise, to one little boy who never got his lollipop.