SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Who is this Carly Fiorina? In the press filing center at the CNN Republican debate, journalists from around the country were asking reporter Carla Marinucci and me because we covered the former Hewlett-Packard CEO for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010 when she ran for the U.S. Senate against California Democrat Barbara Boxer — and failed spectacularly by 1 million votes. Yet here she is, winning the first two GOP primary debates and burning past veteran politicians who have won brutal elections in big states. Can she actually win? And what's her special sauce?
Fiorina rose "from secretary to CEO," as she likes to put it, because she never stopped pushing herself. When she became the first woman to head a Fortune 20 company in 1999, she wrote in her memoirs, "Tough Choices," she wanted to push what she saw as a moribund corporate entity into a company with a "hardnosed focus on merit, excellence and performance." She was controversial. She pushed for a merger with Compaq, which led to the elimination of many jobs. She laid off 30,000 workers and outsourced jobs.
Fiorina was famously fired in 2004. After a contentious "boardroom brawl," she walked away with a golden parachute of $19 million in cash and $21 million in stock and pension benefits.
She turned her eyes toward politics. When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ran for president in 2008, Fiorina stumped furiously for him — which led to conjecture that she would be McCain's choice as running mate. That honor went to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. After the GOP bloodbath, Fiorina decided to run for Boxer's seat.
Fiorina was a natural candidate. As observers saw Wednesday night, she has a true gift with language. She should; she reads Greek and Latin. But she doesn't talk like a university professor or a Beltway wonk: "I'll tell you why people are supporting outsiders. ... If someone's been in the system their whole life, they don't know how broken the system is."
She dispatched Donald Trump when she said: "I also think that one of the benefits of a presidential campaign is the character and capability, judgment and temperament of every single one of us is revealed, over time and under pressure. All of us will be revealed over time and under pressure."
Fiorina hit President Barack Obama for not getting a big immigration bill through in his first two years in office, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. "The Democrats don't want this issue solved." She knows how to use simple language to make her point.
When asked about Trump's claim that he was not criticizing her looks in a recent Rolling Stone interview, she replied, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."
In 2010, Fiorina was a terrific candidate, far better than former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who ran for governor of California — also as a Republican and also as a first-time candidate. Whitman lost big to the famously frugal Jerry Brown. The GOP candidate famously poured millions — including $140 million of her own money — into her campaign in an orgy of advertising and self-promotion, while she gave precious little access to the media. It was never clear why Whitman wanted to be governor.
Fiorina came off better in contrast with Whitman. She spent a fraction of Whitman's campaign chest — $22 million, which was less than Boxer spent. She readily talked to the media. She came across as a game candidate with nothing to hide.
I thought Fiorina would fare far better than Whitman in the general election. But though the former HP CEO garnered more votes than the former eBay chief, it was a difference of fewer than 100,000 votes. For political scientists, there's an important lesson. A great campaign with a strong candidate can make a difference of maybe 2 percent. But party trumps all. It's nearly impossible to get a Republican — at least a Republican who opposes abortion rights — elected to statewide office in California.
Fiorina shares a vulnerability with 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Democrats were able to pummel Romney for layoffs that often followed his Bain Capital's decision to invest in a corporation. Romney didn't help himself when he talked up "creative destruction" and told an audience, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." Democrats were able to paint Romney as the symbol for ruthless cost-cutting capitalism. If she is the nominee or running mate, a small army of disgruntled former HP workers would be happy to tell their bitter tales. So why would the GOP want to put a distaff Romney on the 2016 ticket?
The difference, some Republican fans tell me, is Fiorina's skill at biting back. When CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper asked Fiorina about Trump's assertion that Fiorina "ran HP into the ground," she did not flinch. She described what the economy was like when she took the helm. She did not regret her "tough choices," because tough cookies (my phrase) make enemies. Then Fiorina pulled out a card few can draw. When HP fired her, she said, Steve Jobs called to say, "Hey, been there, done that twice."
The golden parachute? Hey, why can't a woman bring home an obscene parting haul the way so many men have?
In December, I found Fiorina less available than in 2010. I noted that Fiorina had failed to pay off $500,000 in debt from her 2010 senatorial campaign. Who wants to vote for a deadbeat candidate? I wondered. What made the story especially ugly is that the day before the election, Fiorina paid back to herself $1 million of the $6.8 million she personally had lent to the campaign. If she had not paid herself, there would have been no debt for people who toiled rather furiously trying to get her elected. Among her creditors was the widow of political consultant Joe Shumate, who was owed $30,000.
In January, Fiorina paid off her 2010 campaign debts. She told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt: "It's all been paid off, and as you know, campaign debt is nothing particularly new. Hillary Clinton had $25 million worth of it when she finished her last presidential run and, I don't know, took four years or something to pay it off. But we have no debt."
Note to Fiorina: It's rarely a plus to put yourself in the same basket as Hillary Clinton. This little episode — rich woman stiffs staff — reveals something words cannot make look good.
Democrats already have a playbook for going after GOP candidates who hail from today's cutthroat corporate culture. That's OK; Fiorina doesn't shrink from a fight. As she said at the Simi Valley debate, "if you want to stump a Democrat, ask them to name an accomplishment of Mrs. Clinton's." This could be a fascinating election to watch.