On a Republican presidential debate stage expected to be filled with more than a dozen current and former politicians, Carly Fiorinaenvisions herself standing out — as the only woman and the only CEO.
Sensing an opportunity in a crowded field that lacks a front-runner, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive is actively exploring a 2016 presidential run. Fiorina has been talking privately with potential donors, recruiting campaign staffers, courting grass-roots activists in early caucus and primary states and planning trips to Iowa and New Hampshire starting next week.
Fiorina, whose rise from secretaryto Silicon Valley corporate chief during the dot-com boom brought her national attention, has refashioned herself as a hard-charging partisan hoping to strike a sharp contrast with the sea of suited men seeking the GOP nomination.
But Fiorina, 60, has considerable challenges, chiefly that she has sought but never held public office. Lingering disarray from her last campaign could also haunt her next one, undercutting her image as an effective manager. Fiorina still owes nearly $500,000 to consultants and staffers from her failed 2010 Senate bid in California — debts that have left some former associates bitter.
Privately, several prominent Republicans spoke about Fiorina with disdain, saying she has an elevated assessment of her political talents and questioning her qualifications to be commander in chief.
But allies defended Fiorina’s credentials, saying she would make a strong contender.
“She’s very articulate, she’s very thoughtful and has a very positive message,” said David Carney, who has been a top strategist for past GOP presidential candidates and whose wife worked with Fiorina this year in New Hampshire. “She’s got just as much of a record of accomplishment and a story and ideas as anybody else who’s running.”
Carney drew a comparison between Fiorina, a free-market advocate, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a populist firebrand: “She’s sort of the antidote to the Elizabeth Warren arguments from the left.”
In June, Fiorina started the Unlocking Potential PAC with a mission of galvanizing female voters and beefing up the GOP’s ground game. The super PAC made modest investments in four Senate races while funding Fiorina’s travel to presidential battlegrounds such as Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. “She left people wanting more,” said Angie Hughes, the group’s Iowa director. “We did a lot of things that would be helpful to anyone wanting to run for president.”
This month, Fiorina sent handwritten notes to some Iowa activists thanking them for their help with her super PAC and looking forward to “the next phase.”
Asked this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about her 2016 plans, Fiorina said: “When people keep asking you over and over again, you have to pause and reflect. So I’ll pause and reflect at the right time.”
Fiorina plans to visit New Hampshire in early December to address a group of businesses chaired by Rep.-elect Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) and return to Iowa in January to address the Iowa Freedom Summit, co-hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and the group Citizens United. In February, Fiorina will address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Helping Fiorina chart her political future are consultants Frank Sadler, who once worked for Koch Industries, and Stephen DeMaura, a strategist who heads Americans for Job Security, a pro-business advocacy group in Virginia.
Since her Senate bid, Fiorina has moved to Virginia, living with her husband, Frank, in Lorton. Her advisers, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said she is taking the steps necessary to prepare for a presidential campaign.
One adviser said that “the challenges are obvious” but that Fiorina sees an opportunity to run as a “non-politician offering a unique perspective.” The adviser added, “She certainly has the fire in the belly to be involved.”
Fiorina declined through an adviser to be interviewed.
Some prominent Republicans said it would be helpful for the party to have a woman running for president, especially considering the expected candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Democratic side. But they questioned whether Fiorina is the right woman.
At Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina was a pioneering executive — the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company — but her high-profile tenure was controversial. In 2005, after a merger with Compaq, she was forced to resign.
After serving as a prominent surrogate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his 2008 presidential campaign, Fiorina made her first run for elected office in 2010, challenging Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She staked out conservative positions to the right of California’s mainstream — opposing abortion rights and efforts to cut greenhouse gases, for example — and lost to Boxer by 10 points.
Reed Galen, a California-based Republican strategist, said Fiorina is “obviously very interesting, very dynamic and, as one of the first female CEOs, has a good story to tell.” Asked to describe her base within the GOP primary electorate, Galen said: “I’m not sure. My inability to answer shows you how hard a road she has.”