Carly Fiorina, the crowd-pleasing – if not first-tier – candidate for president, was midsentence at a dinner in Iowa last weekend when her microphone cut out, her allotted time up.
The audience, wanting more, groaned in protest, then cheered.
After the event, which wedged in 11 GOP presidential prospects over two hours, The Iowa Republican wrote that Fiorina “found the sweet spot.” Politico said she “killed it,” and Fox News offered in a headline, simply, that Fiorina “impresses crowd.”
This could be difficult to fathom for a candidate who has never held elected office, failed badly the only other time she tried – for U.S. Senate in California in 2010 – and barely registers in national polls.
Yet in the weeks since announcing her candidacy, Fiorina has gained an uncommon degree of attention in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire. She has endeared herself to conservatives who – while not considering Fiorina their first choice – relish her status as the Republican field’s only woman and most strident critic of the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I guess I would say she’s doing as well as she might hope at this point,” said Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “Right now, she’s fresh,” but “she’s got a really high hill to climb.”
When Fiorina, the 60-year-old former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co., announced her candidacy this month, she said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that her private-sector credentials qualify her for office.
“I think I’m the best person for the job, because I understand how the economy actually works,” she said.
That message is one Fiorina rehearsed in California five years ago. But in her presidential run, it is her near-constant criticism of Clinton that has come to define the early stages of her campaign.
Seconds after beginning her speech in Iowa, Fiorina took after the former first lady and secretary of state, saying she (Fiorina) had “answered a total of 372 on-the-record questions” compared to Clinton’s few.
“If Hillary Clinton is going to run for presidency of the United States, she is going to have to answer some questions,” Fiorina said. “And we are going to have to have a nominee who has the courage to ask her those questions.”
Fiorina’s campaign declined to make her available for questions for this story, but one stands out: How could someone last seen getting thrashed in a U.S. Senate race limp away from that contest, look back and conclude that running for president was the next thing to do?
Likening Fiorina’s prospects to those of a Vermont senator who is also a long-shot candidate for president, Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution joked, “She and Bernie Sanders look like a lock.”
Failing in California might not cause a Republican to despair. The state is so heavily Democratic that no Republican could likely have defeated incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010. Fiorina lost by 10 percentage points, but she did better than the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman, who lost to Jerry Brown by nearly 13 percentage points.
At the time, Boxer called it the “toughest and roughest campaign of my life.”
An unsuccessful candidate in California can achieve national success. Richard Nixon lost the race for governor in 1962. Six years later he was elected president.
“What I’ve been saying and I’ll still say is that she should not be underestimated in terms of her skills as a candidate,” said Marty Wilson, who managed Fiorina’s 2010 campaign. “I do think she has the ability to break through.”
The more conventional appraisal of Fiorina, even among supporters, is that her candidacy could benefit the GOP despite her long odds.
“I’d like her to stay in the race,” said Frank Singer, a technology investor from Huntington Beach who supported Fiorina in 2010. “At least the Republicans have someone that can ... challenge Hillary without being called a sexist. And who knows? Maybe as a vice president candidate she’d do well.”
Fiorina is polling at around 1 percent nationally. She lags so far back in a bulging crowd of Republican presidential contenders that she is at risk of missing the top-10 cutoff for admittance to the first GOP primary debate, in August in Cleveland.
“Really, many people believe you don’t have a great chance of securing the GOP nomination,” Katie Couric told Fiorina in an interview on Yahoo News this month. “You’re polling at around 1 percent, so is this, are you hoping that you may be in fact tapped as a vice presidential candidate?”
Fiorina asked Couric, without explanation, if she would ask a man such a question, then said she is a serious contender.
“I started out as a secretary in a nine-person real estate firm,” Fiorina said. “I’ve been underestimated my whole life, and it doesn’t trouble me that a bunch of polls or a bunch of pundits are underestimating me now.”
Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who helped George W. Bush and Mitt Romney in their campaigns, said Fiorina’s recent appearances in New Hampshire have given “the impression of somebody who’s taking it seriously.”
“I don’t think anyone yet considers that she might be the nominee,” he said. “But they’re not ruling her out.”
Yet as compelling a speaker as Fiorina may be, her political and fundraising network is not as deep as those of her more experienced competitors. To overcome that is “a very, very hard thing to do,” Rath said. “We’re no longer in a world where Mr. Smith gives a couple of good speeches and all of a sudden he’s off to Washington.”
Fiorina moved to Mason Neck, Va., outside Washington, D.C., after losing to Boxer in 2010. Like other Republicans, she is returning to California, a major source of campaign contributions, to raise money.
Fiorina was scheduled to meet with members of New Majority California, a group of wealthy Republican donors in Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego, last week and in early June.
While Fiorina’s case for her candidacy – contrasting her business background with a skewering of Washington bureaucracy – is familiar to California donors, her liabilities are, too.
Four years after Boxer bashed Fiorina for laying off 30,000 employees and outsourcing thousands of jobs at HP, the San Francisco Chronicle reported her campaign still owed creditors nearly $500,000, a debt that only recently was repaid.
Fiorina does better among Republicans in California than nationally. A Field Poll last week put her support among likely Republican voters here at 3 percent. For a candidate who has run statewide before, that is a “very poor showing,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll.
The largest block of likely Republican voters in California is undecided, with the electorate here paying little attention to Fiorina or anyone else.
“Frankly, until they sort themselves out a little, I don’t have the energy to listen,” said Cam Garner, a venture capitalist from Rancho Santa Fe who was one of Fiorina’s first donors in 2010.
But the contest is picking up in early voting states and on the 24-hour news networks – and Fiorina is in the thick of it at the bottom of the fray.
After the Iowa dinner, Donald Trump, who also spoke, told The Des Moines Register that more people came to his hospitality suite that evening than to Fiorina’s. Not only had she “lost in a landslide” in her California race in 2010, he said, but had spent millions of dollars of her own money on the effort.
“She lost much of her money on that run,” Trump said. “That’s why she carries her own bags now.”
Long-shot candidate for president has background in business, not elected office
Born: Sept. 6, 1954, in Austin, Texas
Political party: Republican
Education: Bachelor’s in medieval history and philosophy, Stanford University; master’s in business administration, University of Maryland; master’s in management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Elected experience: Unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate in California in 2010
Business experience: Former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard; former executive at AT&T and spinoff Lucent Technologies