I Underestimated Carly Fiorina. Here’s How.

The Hewlett Packard CEO-turned presidential contender is unlikely to be the GOP’s nominee, but she could emerge as a leading contender to be a running mate.

Carly Fiorina, Chairman of Good360, and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, speaks at the National Press Club, July 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. Ms. Fiorina was the guest speaker for the Press Club's newsmaker luncheon and spoke about American innovation and leadership in the 21st century. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 27, 2015, 11:47 a.m.

I’ve long hes­it­ated to write about Carly Fior­ina’s pro­spect­ive pres­id­en­tial cam­paign be­cause she seemed like such a long shot in a GOP field filled with ac­com­plished can­did­ates. Her cam­paign ex­per­i­ence con­sisted of a failed 2010 Sen­ate chal­lenge against Sen. Bar­bara Box­er, which was well-fun­ded but fell far short of early ex­pect­a­tions. She earned ac­claim as the first fe­male CEO of Hew­lett Pack­ard, but her tu­mul­tu­ous ten­ure and messy de­par­ture de­prived her of the pos­it­ive press that a glass-shat­ter­ing role nor­mally en­tails. Since los­ing the Sen­ate race, she moved to Vir­gin­ia, served as a vice-chair for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, and be­came an oc­ca­sion­al guest on the cable news cir­cuit.

But after watch­ing her latest stump speech at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, it’s clear that she’s got more po­ten­tial than many have giv­en her cred­it for.

She’s an en­ga­ging speak­er who has ar­tic­u­lated a more co­gent con­trast against Hil­lary Clin­ton than any of the oth­er pro­spect­ive Re­pub­lic­ans. She earned one of the loudest ap­plause lines at CPAC on Thursday when she ar­gued that Is­raeli prime min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu was speak­ing be­fore Con­gress not to of­fend the pres­id­ent but to warn the world of the dangers of a nuc­le­ar Ir­an.

Most sig­ni­fic­antly, she was one of the few speak­ers who ac­tu­ally de­livered a speech that was fo­cused against Hil­lary Clin­ton — the GOP’s all-but-cer­tain op­pon­ent in 2016 — rather than dwell on Pres­id­ent Obama’s short­com­ings. Sev­er­al speak­ers re­ferred to the “Obama-Clin­ton” for­eign policy as short­hand for con­nect­ing the pres­id­ent’s for­eign policy prob­lems to his former Sec­ret­ary of State. Rand Paul re­lied on at­tack­ing her hand­ling of the Benghazi at­tacks, one that ap­peals to the base but has lim­ited ap­peal to swing voters. Fior­ina ac­tu­ally weaved a nar­rat­ive that Clin­ton’s ten­ure as the na­tion’s top dip­lo­mat was all hype and little sub­stance.

“She tweets about equal pay for wo­men but won’t an­swer ba­sic ques­tions about her own of­fices’ pay stand­ards — and neither will our Pres­id­ent. Hil­lary likes hasht­ags. But she doesn’t know what lead­er­ship means,” Fior­ina thundered. An­oth­er fa­vor­ite quip of Fior­ina’s is: “Un­like Mrs. Clin­ton, I know that fly­ing is an activ­ity, not an ac­com­plish­ment.” Her ad­visers are con­vinced that jibe has got­ten un­der Clin­ton’s skin.

Des­pite her lim­ited elect­or­al ex­per­i­ence, she brings unique polit­ic­al as­sets to the table. She’s the only wo­man in the GOP’s crowded field. She spoke flu­ently on for­eign policy in her speech, touch­ing upon her per­son­al re­la­tion­ship with King Hus­sein of Jordan, call­ing on strong sup­port for Net­an­yahu, and de­cry­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s feck­less hand­ling of the crisis in Ukraine. Along with Car­son, she’s one of only two non-politi­cians in the field who can tout an ac­com­plished (though po­lar­iz­ing) busi­ness his­tory. She’s cap­able of win­ning sup­port from both the party’s es­tab­lish­ment and grass­roots — a ne­ces­sary as­set that lim­its many of her chal­lengers’ ap­peal.

In­deed, after her speech, sev­er­al at­tendees spec­u­lated that if her cam­paign ex­ceeds ex­pect­a­tions, she could end up on the short list as the GOP nom­in­ee’s run­ning mate. She’s already play­ing the tra­di­tion­al run­ning mate role with her ag­gress­ive at­tacks against Hil­lary Clin­ton. She’d po­ten­tially neut­ral­ize the GOP vul­ner­ab­il­ity with wo­men voters, one of the ma­jor con­cerns of GOP strategists. Asked what he thought of her speech, Adam Kwas­man, a 2014 con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate from Ari­zona, vo­lun­teered that she should be the party’s top num­ber two.

Walk­er-Fior­ina 2016? If re­cep­tions at CPAC de­term­ined the fu­ture tra­ject­ory of pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, that tick­et would be aw­fully plaus­ible. But even after the CPAC sug­ar high, Fior­ina looks to be an in­creas­ingly plaus­ible con­tender who could leave her mark on the crowded field.

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