CPAC: Is Carly Fiorina the GOP's Anti-Hillary?


(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland, on February 26, 2015.

Carly Fiorina is almost certainly running for president.

At first glance, Fiorina doesn’t seem like much of a 2016 presidential contender. Despite that, organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference gave her a desirable speaking slot on February 26, the conference's opening day—just after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and before right-wing favorite Ted Cruz.

If elected, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard would not only be the first woman president; she’d be the first  not to have held an elected post. She lost her only political race—by double digits—to incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer in a 2010 U.S. Senate race. Her only other politics foray was as a surrogate for John McCain’s presidential bid in 2008. In a series of faux pas, she embarrassed the Republican nominee.

As the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company, Fiorina was a pioneer for women in executive positions—something that she constantly touts. But her tenure as CEO was not without controversy—she had a reputation for firing those who did not agree with her and she presided over massive layoffs. In 2005, HP forced her to  resign. That day, the company's stock price rose 7 percent.

So what do the organizers of CPAC see in her?

As Fiorina takes the stage, Pharrell’s “Happy” blares from the public address system. She stands at the podium, the bright blue of her skirt suit popping against the red velvet curtains behind her, and a red screen showing a map of the United States—all 50 states in red. Two massive screens on either side of the stage show a close-up of her standing at the podium. Her blonde hair is cut into a bob, and you can’t help but think of Hillary Clinton.

“When I was a little girl,” she begins, “my mother in Sunday school gave me a plaque that read what you are is God’s gift to you, what you make of yourself is your gift to God.”

It’s the foundation of her speech. As Fioria tells an abbreviated story of her upbringing, she explains that she was “fortunate enough” to go to Stanford University, but that after a year of law school, she quit and became a secretary at a small real estate firm.

“I know it’s only in this country that a young woman can go from secretary to CEO,” Fiorina said.  

“Liberals may be able to consign some to lives of dependence...but we as conservatives are not,” Fiorina says, referencing not only the poor, but staying on her “We Can Do It!” message to women.

“Women are now 53 percent of voters,” states Fiorina later on, “We [women] are not a special interest group, we are the majority of the country.”

Yet, before this conservative crowd, Fiorina also makes a point of touting her anti-choice credentials, stating that she believes every life is precious.

But Fiorina doesn’t just talk about women in politics or in high places—that’s for tomorrow’s “Lies Liberals Told to You by Liberals”— or domestic policies. She makes tough statements on foreign policy, a hallmark of a politician who’s looking to make a presidential run.

“I know Bibi Netanyahu, and as I sat in his office five years ago, he spoke then of the dangers posed by warn the American people that our president’s insistence on a deal with Iran at any cost is a danger to the world,” she says, just as controversy surrounds the political sphere over the Israeli prime minister’s scheduled speech before the U.S. Congress next week—a mere two weeks before his country’s national elections, and without an invitation from the White House.

The crowd erupts, standing on their feet in approval.

“I know King Abdullah of Jordan…” she begins again, criticizing Obama’s handling of ISIS while showing her ties to foreign leaders.

She then turns to Hillary Clinton, criticizing her handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and her diplomatic efforts with Putin, stating, "I have met Vladimir Putin, and I know that his ambition will not be deterred by a gimmicky red reset button.”

As she goes on, the attacks became more pointed towards Hillary Clinton. "Mrs. Clinton, please name an accomplishment...And in the meantime, please explain why we should accept that the millions and millions of dollars that have flowed into the Clinton Global Initiative from foreign governments does not represent a conflict of interest."

With these jabs at Clinton, from one woman to another, Fiorina is setting herself up as the central GOP opponent to Hillary, showing that she’s the one that could take her on in a one-on-one debate.

Fiorina closes her speech to appreciative applause, turning to the moderator who asks her a few questions. The confidence in her delivery falters slightly, but when given a question about the importance of a female presidential candidate she hits it out of the park.

“I think our party needs to be as diverse as the nation we hope to represent,” Fiorina notes, “And I will say this, if Hillary Clinton had to face me on a debate stage, at the very least, she would have a hitch in her swank.”  

The crowd erupts in applause over the sound of “Happy,” which heralds her exit.

A short while after speech, I speak to student Kristin Anderson, a conservative originally from central Indiana and who now attends University of Tampa. She is glowing in her appraisal. “I loved Carly,” she says. “I think she’s a very viable candidate, and being the woman that she is, being a CEO, she definitely has that capitalist mind, which is really helpful to our party. I think she’d bring a lot to the table. And as a woman, I look up to her.”

In particular, Anderson loves Fiorina's line about women comprising the majority of voters, and of the population generally. “The fact that she recognizes that we a majority not a minority; I thought that was probably the most poignant thing that she mentioned,” Anderson comments. Her classmate, Matthew Hartford, is quick to second that: “I thought that was really powerful statement,” he tells me.

He adds: “To see a woman up there representing the Republican party is definitely good.”

This is what the organizers of CPAC likely hoped for—the reaction they wanted. They can’t possibly expect Carly Fiorina to win the presidential nomination: Her name is not well-known ,and the fact that she has held no elected position is a major liability.

But Fiorina may just be shooting one rung lower than commander-in-chief. A presidential run brings name recognition and political experience, one that could bring her to a position to be a viable candidate for the vice presidency.

Republicans know they have a woman problem, and what Fiorina can do is generate enthusiasm among conservative—and even some moderate—women voters. Democrats’ women voters are mostly not married; Fiorina’s appeal to the generally more conservative married women voter could be a boon to a GOP ticket. And when she takes a shot or two at Hillary Clinton, the optics are so much better than when a man does, making Fiorina a potentially more viable surrogate than she was in 2008.



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