Carly Fiorina’s Audacious Sales Pitch

Carly Fiorina’s audacious sales pitch.

Carly Fiorina and her husband Frank Florina at their home in Lorton, Va. on Feb. 3, 2015.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
Feb. 13, 2015, midnight

On a re­cent week­day morn­ing, I drive to Carly Fior­ina’s house in North­ern Vir­gin­ia, about 40 minutes from Wash­ing­ton. She lives in a gated com­munity down a drive­way so long that it’s lined with its own street­lamps. Her $6.1 mil­lion house sits on five acres, with un­ob­struc­ted views of the Po­tom­ac River. After I park my car, she lets out her two York­shire ter­ri­ers, Max and Snick­ers, to greet me.

As I walk in­to the huge foy­er with a sweep­ing stair­case, Fior­ina takes my coat, while her dogs run in circles and yip. (“They think they’re big­ger than they are. Don’t dis­suade them!” she later jokes.) To­geth­er, Fior­ina and her hus­band, Frank, make for a warm, friendly couple. They look young­er than two people in their 60s: both trim, en­er­get­ic, and smartly dressed. Frank has gone out and bought donuts for us, still wrapped in a yel­low box, which Fior­ina keeps of­fer­ing me. Are you sure you don’t want any cof­fee, juice, or wa­ter? she asks. They treat me like I’m a new neigh­bor who’s stopped by to watch Sunday foot­ball.

Even­tu­ally, Fior­ina and I head up­stairs to her study, where we talk about her (po­ten­tial) pres­id­en­tial plans. She has been sig­nal­ing for months that she may run, and I want to hear more about her brand of polit­ics. When I ask how she would dis­tin­guish her­self from the cur­rent crop of Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, she says: “Well, I think I’m dif­fer­ent in every re­spect. Clearly, I bring a dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ence set. I bring a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. As a res­ult, I speak about the is­sues just dif­fer­ently. I think I tend to fo­cus on solu­tions and res­ults. I think I have a dif­fer­ent voice.” Asked what would be her path to vic­tory—what states, for in­stance, would she win?—she says, “Well, I think it is hard for every­one to see how it will go down. We’re all con­sumed with polit­ics all of the time. We don’t know what the field is yet. We’re a year away. No one has of­fi­cially de­clared. I think there is a lot that is go­ing to un­fold.”

Fior­ina of­fers no short­age of these gen­er­al­it­ies about her pos­sible polit­ic­al ca­reer—un­til the con­ver­sa­tion turns to Hil­lary Clin­ton. At that point, she be­comes much more an­im­ated and de­tailed. “I think her clumsy at­tempt to chan­nel Eliza­beth War­ren and say, ‘Don’t let any­one tell you that busi­nesses cre­ate jobs’ was not just clumsy, it be­lies a lack of un­der­stand­ing about the way the eco­nomy works,” she says. Fior­ina also cri­ti­cizes the former sec­ret­ary of State’s hand­ling of the Benghazi at­tack and pre­dicts that Clin­ton “will play the gender card over and over again, which is un­for­tu­nate but pre­dict­able.”

For Fior­ina—the former CEO of Hew­lett-Pack­ard, whose only pre­vi­ous at­tempt at elec­ted of­fice was an un­suc­cess­ful 2010 bid to dis­place Sen. Bar­bara Box­er—go­ing after Clin­ton has proved to be a fruit­ful tac­tic. Last month, she got high marks and sub­stan­tial me­dia at­ten­tion for a speech she gave at the Iowa Free­dom Sum­mit. Speak­ing along­side oth­er GOP hope­fuls, she un­leashed a zinger at Clin­ton that played well with the con­ser­vat­ive crowd. “Like Hil­lary Clin­ton, I too have traveled hun­dreds of thou­sands of miles around the globe,” she told the audi­ence. “But un­like her, I have ac­tu­ally ac­com­plished something. You see, Mrs. Clin­ton, fly­ing is not an ac­com­plish­ment; it is an activ­ity.”

Fior­ina had writ­ten the speech by hand on the plane en route to Iowa, but she didn’t add that Clin­ton line un­til a few hours be­fore she took the stage. It proved to be a great de­cision. “Carly Fior­ina, Scott Walk­er stocks rise after Iowa ap­pear­ances,” trum­peted a head­line in The Wash­ing­ton Times the next day. “Carly Fior­ina: The GOP’s weapon against Hil­lary Clin­ton?” asked For­tune shortly there­after.

Un­der­ly­ing all this praise for Fior­ina is a sense that, as the only Re­pub­lic­an wo­man who is likely to run for pres­id­ent, she might be uniquely able to cri­ti­cize Clin­ton without draw­ing charges of sex­ism. “The most ef­fect­ive way to cri­ti­cize a wo­man is to have an­oth­er wo­man do it,” a Re­pub­lic­an strategist told Time last year.

This lo­gic (however gendered and ar­gu­ably sex­ist) may well get Fior­ina an ini­tial hear­ing from the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate in the months to come. But if that ini­tial hear­ing goes well, then the tough ques­tions will be­gin: Why is she run­ning for pres­id­ent? What is her es­sen­tial mes­sage to GOP voters? And, bey­ond an abil­ity to lam­baste Clin­ton, is she ac­tu­ally a good mes­sen­ger?

“Carly has this kind of a sense about her­self that she has something defin­it­ive to give,” says Ken Khachi­gi­an, a law­yer who was an ad­viser on her 2010 Sen­ate cam­paign. “Obama jumped ahead of every­one to be pres­id­ent based on his story. She has her story, too.”

THE DAY AFTER I VIS­IT her house, I spend five hours with Fior­ina as she shuttles between ap­pear­ances. The first event takes place on the ninth floor of the Hay Adams hotel, where she is speak­ing to a crowd of roughly 60 people at an an­nu­al policy break­fast sponsored by the Leg­acy Polit­ic­al Fund, a con­ser­vat­ive PAC. (We later run in­to Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Pat Toomey just out­side the event and Sen. Marco Ru­bio in the hotel lobby.)The ma­jor prob­lem with Fior­ina’s un­suc­cess­ful 2010 bid against Sen. Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia was that she let Box­er’s cam­paign define her as an out-of-touch CEO. (Dav­id McNew/Getty Im­ages)

When I get there, Fior­ina is stand­ing at the po­di­um. On the left is an Amer­ic­an flag; be­hind her, through the ball­room’s wall of win­dows, you can see one of the best views in Wash­ing­ton: a pan­or­ama of the Wash­ing­ton Monu­ment, the White House, and the Treas­ury De­part­ment.

Fior­ina tells a story she has told many times be­fore about how she gradu­ated from Stan­ford Uni­versity with a de­gree in me­di­ev­al his­tory and philo­sophy. She pauses, so every­one can chuckle at the fool­ish­ness of these im­prac­tic­al ma­jors. “All dressed up, nowhere to go!” she says, pok­ing fun at her­self. She en­rolled in law school, hated it, and quit after a single semester. “And, now I’m really un­em­ploy­able,” she says. So, she finds a job as a re­cep­tion­ist at a nine-per­son firm where she typed, filed, and answered the phone. “I had no idea what I was go­ing to do with my life. I was just try­ing to pay the rent,” she says.

Even though I know the arc of her story, it is still fun to listen to her. Every­one else in the room seems to agree: No one gets up for more cof­fee or eggs from the break­fast buf­fet. No one around me cas­u­ally scrolls through email or Face­book. For a few minutes, she owns this room.

Fior­ina isn’t just good in group set­tings. She’s also a skilled one-on-one re­tail politi­cian. (Later in the day, we go to Fox News to­geth­er, where she is as kind to the makeup artists—ask­ing one about her cab­bage diet—as she is to Ed Henry, the net­work’s chief White House cor­res­pond­ent.) This tal­ent may trace back to her child­hood. When she was grow­ing up, her fam­ily moved so of­ten to ac­com­mod­ate her fath­er’s leg­al ca­reer—he was a law pro­fess­or, a law school dean, and a con­ser­vat­ive fed­er­al judge for the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 9th Cir­cuit—that Fior­ina ended up at­tend­ing high school in Africa, Cali­for­nia, and North Car­o­lina. The up­side of such con­stant change, she writes in her mem­oir, was that it taught her to al­ways ask people ques­tions as a way to make friends and learn about a new place. Much later, she writes, “I learned this is a great man­age­ment tool.”

After drop­ping out of law school and after her stint as a sec­ret­ary, Fior­ina even­tu­ally got her MBA and for about 20 years worked in vari­ous sales, mar­ket­ing, and strategy jobs for tele­com­mu­nic­a­tion gi­ants AT&T and Lu­cent Tech­no­lo­gies. Then, in 1998, a re­port­er for For­tune came to Lu­cent to in­ter­view Fior­ina and a cowork­er for a fea­ture on the most power­ful wo­men in busi­ness. At the time, Fior­ina was pres­id­ent of Lu­cent’s Glob­al Ser­vice Pro­vider di­vi­sion. Though her group was re­spons­ible for churn­ing out roughly $19 bil­lion in rev­en­ue an­nu­ally, Fior­ina wasn’t ex­actly a house­hold name. Yet when the For­tune piece came out, she was ranked in the No. 1 slot—ahead of Oprah Win­frey and Martha Stew­art. Fior­ina topped the list, For­tune wrote, be­cause she “sells no less than ‘the things that make com­mu­nic­a­tions work’—big-tick­et net­work­ing sys­tems and soft­ware for tele­phone, In­ter­net, and wire­less-ser­vice op­er­at­ors in 43 coun­tries around the globe. In short, she’s at the cen­ter of the on­go­ing tech­no­logy re­volu­tion that’s chan­ging how we live and work.”

After that, re­cruit­ers for ma­jor com­pan­ies star­ted call­ing. The call that in­trigued Fior­ina most came from Hew­lett-Pack­ard. Soon enough, she was the com­pany’s new CEO—the first to come from out­side HP, and the first fe­male head of a For­tune 20 com­pany.

When Fior­ina took over HP, Frank re­tired from his own ca­reer as an AT&T ex­ec­ut­ive. Un­able to have chil­dren her­self, Fior­ina had helped to raise her hus­band’s two daugh­ters as her own. Now, Frank op­ted to stay home, sup­port Fior­ina, and travel with her—a move that Carly’s own fath­er did not ap­prove of for the first few years, Frank says. “It was a very prac­tic­al con­sid­er­a­tion,” Carly re­calls. “By the time I was named CEO of HP, we either would nev­er see one an­oth­er or something had to give. It had to be his de­cision, and I’m grate­ful that he made that de­cision.”

IN HIND­SIGHT, the HP board of dir­ect­ors made an un­usu­al choice by pick­ing her; she’d nev­er run a com­pany, and she had a mar­ket­ing, rather than an en­gin­eer­ing, back­ground. “I thought she was one of the best sales­wo­men in the world from Lu­cent, but she was over her head at HP. I don’t think she had the tech­nic­al and man­age­ment skills,” says Mark An­der­son of Stra­tegic News Ser­vice, which cov­ers Sil­ic­on Val­ley.

Fior­ina also did not an­ti­cip­ate the at­ten­tion that she would re­ceive as the first fe­male CEO of HP. When a re­port­er asked about her gender at the press con­fer­ence an­noun­cing her ap­point­ment, she replied that “the glass ceil­ing doesn’t ex­ist,” a mo­ment she re­counts in her mem­oir. Even now, she doesn’t seem par­tic­u­larly hung up on the idea of gender. (When I ask her to name some Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians she ad­mires, she ini­tially names all men—George W. Bush, John Mc­Cain, Mitch Mc­Con­nell, and Paul Ry­an.)

From al­most the start, Fior­ina’s ten­ure at HP was con­tro­ver­sial. The For­tune art­icle and her own en­er­get­ic man­ner pro­pelled her to such a level of celebrity that, at times, it seemed to over­take her work at HP. “She spent a lot of time on the road and be­ing pho­to­graphed with the products, ex­cept that none of the products did very well,” An­der­son says. She ap­peared on the cov­er of busi­ness magazines, traveled around the world to meet HP em­ploy­ees and cus­tom­ers, and did the voice-over her­self for a new HP ad that was in­ten­ded to both rebrand and pay homage to the com­pany’s en­tre­pren­eur­i­al ori­gins. She also over­saw a con­tro­ver­sial mer­ger with Com­paq, and fought a very pub­lic proxy battle that pit­ted her against one of the chil­dren of the com­pany’s founders.

For Wall Street, though, the most sa­li­ent fact about Fior­ina was the bot­tom line. Dur­ing the five-plus years that she led HP, the stock price de­creased by more than 50 per­cent. HP’s third-quarter earn­ings for 2004 missed the com­pany’s pro­jec­ted fore­cast by a wide mar­gin.

In Feb­ru­ary 2005, the HP board fired Fior­ina. The next day, the com­pany’s stock rose by 6.9 per­cent, and The Wall Street Journ­al re­por­ted that some em­ploy­ees re­acted to the news of her dis­missal by hold­ing cham­pagne toasts.

Ac­counts of why she was fired dif­fer de­pend­ing on whom you ask. Fior­ina blames her de­par­ture on a num­ber of factors, none of them of her own mak­ing. She was an out­sider and the first fe­male CEO of the com­pany, she points out; plus, the HP board was dys­func­tion­al. (Two board mem­bers left roughly a year and a half after Fior­ina’s de­par­ture be­cause they were im­plic­ated in a massive scan­dal in­volving the in­vest­ig­a­tion of leaks of con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion.)

But what about the com­pany’s weak fin­an­cial per­form­ance? “Yes, there were data points that the press strung to­geth­er. But what the press missed at the time, and what is fac­tu­ally clear when you go back and look, is the con­text,” Fior­ina says. “So, the con­text was that vir­tu­ally every tech­no­logy com­pany’s stock was down at the very same rate—Or­acle, Cisco, you name it.”

Her de­tract­ors, and much of the busi­ness press, told it dif­fer­ently. Ven­ture cap­it­al­ist Tom Per­kins (who pushed for Fior­ina’s ouster as a board mem­ber and later quit, dis­mayed by the leak­ing scan­dal) says she got fired be­cause she was such a high-fly­ing, big-pic­ture CEO that she did not have time to ex­ecute her ideas. “The board thought she was do­ing too much her­self and wanted her to hire a few ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ents,” he says. “It turned in­to a stan­doff, which Carly lost with the board. It did not have to be this way.” (Years later, with the re­la­tion­ship men­ded, Per­kins hos­ted a fun­draiser in Cali­for­nia for Fior­ina’s Sen­ate race.)

Fior­ina’s HP ten­ure is a well-known story in the busi­ness world, so I called a few pro­fess­ors who study com­pan­ies and CEOs for a broad­er as­sess­ment. I wanted to know how they would grade her lead­er­ship, a rel­ev­ant ques­tion for someone who wants to be pres­id­ent. “If I re­serve F for some­body who is steal­ing, I guess a C or C-minus,” says Jef­frey Sonnen­feld, a pro­fess­or at the Yale School of Man­age­ment. “Had she not gone in there, it would have been a much bet­ter com­pany. You can’t ar­gue that it’s bet­ter for her lead­er­ship.”

FIOR­INA DE­PAR­TED HP with a $21 mil­lion sev­er­ance pack­age. She took six months off, wrote a mem­oir called Tough Choices (not to be con­fused with Clin­ton’s Hard Choices), and hit the speak­ing cir­cuit. From al­most the start, Fior­ina’s ten­ure at HP was con­tro­ver­sial. (JOHN G. MA­BAN­GLO/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

The day after she left HP, Fior­ina tells me, Pres­id­ent Bush called and asked her to come to the Oval Of­fice to talk about pos­sible po­s­i­tions. (She also says that dur­ing her HP ten­ure, in 2004, Bush had offered her the post of Home­land Se­cur­ity sec­ret­ary. A Bush spokes­per­son could not con­firm or deny that an of­fer was made.) But her first ma­jor for­ay onto the polit­ic­al stage came in 2008 when she worked for the Mc­Cain cam­paign as an ad­viser. It was then, she says, that she real­ized how much she en­joyed the cam­paign trail. “I’ve al­ways drawn my en­ergy from people. I find it really fas­cin­at­ing and in­ter­est­ing and fun to be able to be out there and talk­ing about what is go­ing on in their lives,” she says. This worked fairly well un­til she told a TV an­chor dur­ing a routine ap­pear­ance that neither Mc­Cain nor his run­ning mate, Sarah Pal­in, could run a ma­jor cor­por­a­tion. After that, seni­or cam­paign ad­viser Steve Schmidt said that she was nev­er go­ing on TV for the cam­paign again.

Fior­ina en­dured per­son­al chal­lenges around that time as well. In early 2009, she was dia­gnosed with breast can­cer. (She’s healthy and can­cer-free now, she tells me—and in the best shape of her life.) Then, in mid-Oc­to­ber 2009, her young­er daugh­ter, Lori, died alone in her apart­ment at the age of 35. Fior­ina does not like to dis­cuss it, ex­cept to say that “she struggled with ad­dic­tions, and they over­came her.” A few weeks later, Fior­ina an­nounced her run for the Sen­ate seat from Cali­for­nia held by Box­er.

Friends say that when Fior­ina was com­ing up through the busi­ness world, she nev­er ex­pressed any in­terest in polit­ics. “Polit­ics nev­er came up. It really didn’t,” says Kathy Fitzger­ald, an old friend of Fior­ina’s from their Lu­cent days. “She nev­er said, ‘Someday I want to be pres­id­ent of the United States.’ ” In fact, Fior­ina failed to even vote dur­ing the 10 years she lived and worked in New Jer­sey, ac­cord­ing to a 2009 San Fran­cisco Chron­icle in­vest­ig­a­tion. Fred Dav­is, one of her former cam­paign con­sult­ants and a well-known GOP ad man, puts it this way: “I don’t think Carly had an in­nate love of polit­ics, as a little girl, like Harry Re­id or Mitch Mc­Con­nell. It was like be­ing the CEO of something new, big, and im­port­ant.”

When I ask Marty Wilson, the man­ager of her Sen­ate cam­paign, why he thinks Fior­ina was ini­tially drawn to polit­ics, there’s a long pause on the line, so long I be­lieve that we’ve been dis­con­nec­ted. “I’m not sure of her mo­tiv­a­tion,” says Wilson, who has also worked for former Cali­for­nia Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger. “She grav­it­ated to­ward pub­lic policy and built up some friend­ships with vari­ous pub­lic fig­ures like Sen­at­or Mc­Cain. One thing leads to an­oth­er.”

Be­hind the scenes, the cam­paign got off to an odd start. Ac­cus­tomed to run­ning a ma­jor glob­al cor­por­a­tion, Fior­ina treated early brain­storm­ing ses­sions like board­room present­a­tions, with Power­Point slides and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al charts, say two people in­volved on the cam­paign. It seemed un­ne­ces­sary since, at that time, just a hand­ful of people worked for her.

While Fior­ina may have a long­time mar­keter’s sense of how to im­prove the GOP’s im­age, it’s not clear how good she is at mar­ket­ing her­self.

Fior­ina cer­tainly ex­celled at the per­son­al part of cam­paign­ing. Rachel Mich­elin, who runs the non­par­tis­an, non­profit group Cali­for­nia Wo­men Lead, re­mem­bers watch­ing Fior­ina tell a crowd in a loc­al high school gym the story of how she star­ted her ca­reer as a sec­ret­ary. “I watched the wo­men, and that really res­on­ated with them,” Mich­elin says. At a dif­fer­ent event, Fior­ina im­pressed Mich­elin by show­ing up and know­ing all about her group ahead of time. “She had done her own home­work and took the time to know what we were about,” Mich­elin re­calls.

But the ma­jor prob­lem with Fior­ina’s 2010 Sen­ate cam­paign—in ad­di­tion to the fact that she was a pro-life Re­pub­lic­an in a solidly lib­er­al state—came from the way she let Box­er’s cam­paign define her: as an out-of-touch CEO. One pro-Box­er ad, for in­stance, fea­tured a stat that Fior­ina had laid off 30,000 work­ers and shipped jobs to China—fol­lowed by a clip say­ing she was proud of her HP work. Fior­ina’s cam­paign nev­er got out from un­der these at­tacks. “It’s fair cri­ti­cism to say that we didn’t re­spond ad­equately,” Fior­ina tells me. “There were people [on the cam­paign] who really thought that the only thing we needed to do was to fo­cus on Box­er’s re­cord, and I think that was wrong in ret­ro­spect. We needed to fo­cus and cla­ri­fy mine as well. Live and learn.”

Those charges cer­tainly will come up again if Fior­ina joins the pres­id­en­tial race. “Carly needs to work di­li­gently to avoid the Mitt Rom­ney com­plex and not be tagged as an out-of-touch one-per­cen­t­er,” says Jeff Cor­less, the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of her 2010 Sen­ate race. 

I press Fior­ina on this point after the Hay Adams break­fast. How will she fend off at­tacks that she’s wealthy or out of touch in 2016? “Well, we’re not as wealthy as Hil­lary and Bill Clin­ton, not by a long shot, which is im­port­ant to re­mem­ber,” she shoots back from her corner of the Jeep. “You’re right, the class card is one the Demo­crats play, but Hil­lary and Bill Clin­ton are worth a lot more than Carly and Frank Fior­ina, so that will be an in­ter­est­ing thing.”

Fior­ina ended up los­ing the Sen­ate race by 10 points. She and Frank left Cali­for­nia and moved to North­ern Vir­gin­ia to live near their daugh­ter, Tracy, and their two grand­daugh­ters, now ages 18 and 10. Fior­ina threw her­self in­to of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton. She served as vice chair in 2012 for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee and now is chair of the Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on Found­a­tion. She’s not even run­ning for pres­id­ent yet, and already her days are filled with TV ap­pear­ances, work for the non­profits on whose boards she sits, and time spent on her PAC, the Un­lock­ing Po­ten­tial Pro­ject—which has raised $1.8 mil­lion, so far, and em­ploys 15 staffers and con­sult­ants.

UNLOCK­ING PO­TEN­TIAL isn’t just the name of Fior­ina’s PAC. It’s one of her sig­na­ture phrases—a gentler ver­sion of the con­ser­vat­ive concept of Amer­ic­ans help­ing oth­er Amer­ic­ans, in­stead of just lean­ing on big gov­ern­ment. I first en­counter “un­lock­ing po­ten­tial” in her 2006 mem­oir. Today, it is an in­teg­ral part of her stump speech. The idea is that she ad­vanced from sec­ret­ary to CEO be­cause oth­ers saw po­ten­tial in her that she ori­gin­ally did not see in her­self. Every­one has po­ten­tial, she ar­gues, as she tries to paint a more in­clus­ive por­trait of the GOP. Like any good mar­keter, it seems, Fior­ina has her taglines—and she will re­peat them re­lent­lessly un­til you re­mem­ber them.Fior­ina, chair­wo­man of the Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on Found­a­tion, speaks at last year’s CPAC. She is slated to speak again at this year’s con­fer­ence. (Rex Fea­tures via AP Im­ages)

In­deed, as I spend time with Fior­ina, it be­comes clear to me that, more than any­thing else, her ideas about the Re­pub­lic­an Party boil down to a set of mar­ket­ing goals. Fior­ina isn’t try­ing to re­form the party ideo­lo­gic­ally; she is a stand­ard small-gov­ern­ment, less-reg­u­la­tion, pro-life Re­pub­lic­an, and doesn’t seem es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in mov­ing the party to the left or to the right. For her, the chal­lenge fa­cing the GOP is the need to mar­ket it­self dif­fer­ently. “If you’re a single mom strug­gling to raise two kids, and Re­pub­lic­ans are talk­ing about smal­ler gov­ern­ment and less tax­a­tion, you don’t un­der­stand what that does for you. In fact, you sus­pect, if that’s all you hear, you think that hurts you,” she says. “We don’t fin­ish the sen­tence for people. I don’t think our policies are wrong. I think we don’t con­nect them in per­son­al ways to people’s lives.”

She adds: “I think in his heart, Mitt Rom­ney is a good man with great em­pathy. “… But for whatever reas­on, that didn’t come across. I think he’s not the only one who has talked about, ‘Well, if people are on gov­ern­ment handouts, they’re not with us.’ That is not only dis­respect­ful and dis­missive of those people, it’s not true.”

One ma­jor irony for Fior­ina is that, while she may have a long­time mar­keter’s sense of how to im­prove the GOP’s im­age, it’s not clear how good she is at mar­ket­ing her­self. In the wake of her HP fir­ing, she lost the PR battle (fairly or not) with her former bosses. And by de­fin­ing Fior­ina as an out-of-touch CEO in 2010, Box­er es­sen­tially out-mar­keted her.

Still, Fior­ina has an­oth­er qual­ity that, after spend­ing time with her, I began (in an odd way) to find im­press­ive: a self-con­fid­ence that seems to over­ride any and all coun­ter­vail­ing evid­ence. It’s a trait that you of­ten no­tice in power­ful or power-hungry men, but it’s rarer to en­counter that de­gree of self-as­sur­ance in a wo­man. For in­stance, Fior­ina sees the fact that she has nev­er held elec­ted of­fice as a strength, not a weak­ness. “There are a whole bunch of people who feel like you don’t have to be a pro­fes­sion­al politi­cian to hold of­fice,” she says. “I’m not the first per­son on the pres­id­en­tial stage who has nev­er held of­fice. Look at Her­man Cain or Ben Car­son. I think they have caught fire be­cause people are look­ing for something dif­fer­ent.” 

Not every­one buys this lo­gic. “She’s ob­vi­ously a gif­ted and cap­able wo­man. But every pres­id­ent of the U.S. since the found­ing of the Re­pub­lic has fit of one of three cri­ter­ia,” says Whit Ayres, a long­time Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant and poll­ster who is work­ing for Sen. Ru­bio. They have been either “a Found­ing Fath­er, a hero­ic mil­it­ary com­mand­er, or a cur­rent or former ma­jor polit­ic­al of­fice­hold­er. Every single one. If you can’t check one of those three boxes, you’re bet­ter off demon­strat­ing your polit­ic­al tal­ent for an of­fice oth­er than for the most im­port­ant job in the world.”

Her close friends ac­know­ledge Fior­ina’s su­preme self-con­fid­ence, but they view it as an ad­mir­able qual­ity. “I think every per­son has their won­der­ful side and their not-so-won­der­ful side,” says De­borah Bowker, a close friend since 1988 who re­cently traveled with Fior­ina to In­dia. “It is hard for me to hear people char­ac­ter­ize Carly in a neg­at­ive ca­ri­ca­ture. Part of it is that she’s su­per smart, strong-willed, and very at­tract­ive. If you’re a wo­man and you’re all those things, un­for­tu­nately, people want to find neg­at­ives.” Her close friend Kathy Fitzger­ald puts it an­oth­er way. “I don’t know how many politi­cians or busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ives you have in­ter­viewed,” she tells me. “I’ve nev­er met any of them who don’t have some amount of ego. You don’t want the shy­est kid in the room to be the lead­er.”

Fior­ina says she will de­cide if she’ll run in late April or May. This con­veni­ently co­in­cides with the re­lease of her second book, Rising to the Chal­lenge: My Lead­er­ship Jour­ney. (Dis­play­ing a mar­keter’s flare for sus­pense, she re­fuses to tell me the title of the book. Amazon, however, lists the title on its site.) This second book will cov­er the years since she left HP. When I ask about spe­cif­ic mo­ments in her life dur­ing our in­ter­view, she some­times falls back on the re­frain that she will cov­er it in great­er de­tail in her book—a clas­sic mar­ket­ing move if ever there was one.

If any­one seems to have any re­ser­va­tions about a po­ten­tial 2016 run, it’s Frank. After all, he has watched his wife get fired from HP quite pub­licly, lose a Sen­ate race, and be­come the sub­ject of thou­sands of news art­icle and head­lines. “It both­ers me to have people bad-mouth her,” he says as he sits at their kit­chen counter. “It both­ers me that she is go­ing to work very, very hard throughout these next couple of years. We’ve been through a lot. I worry about that some­times. I worry about her win­ning.”

Carly Fior­ina does not seem wor­ried. One cur­rent bit of con­ven­tion­al wis­dom about her holds that she will run for pres­id­ent simply to po­s­i­tion her­self as a po­ten­tial vice-pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee or Cab­in­et sec­ret­ary. Ab­so­lutely not, she tells me. “Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is fre­quently wrong,” she says. “If I do run and do this, I’m run­ning to be pres­id­ent.”

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