Monday 23 April 2018

On a roll: but can Carly put it up to Hillary?

Battle-hardened and feisty, Fiorina could be the one to take on Clinton next year

Campaign trail: Carla Fiorini's personal struggles has gained her supporters
Campaign trail: Carla Fiorini's personal struggles has gained her supporters

Caitriona Palmer

In 2009, Carly Fiorina opened the door to her California home to find two police officers standing on the doorstep. Once inside, Fiorina remembers, the officers shifted their feet uncomfortably as though worried they might muddy the carpet with their shoes.

"They asked us to sit down," the Republican presidential candidate recounted in her memoir, Rising to the Challenge. "[My husband] Frank collapsed in a chair. I sat on the carpet next to him... The police officers said our daughter was dead, three thousand miles away."

For a long time following the loss of her step-daughter, Lori, Fiorina dodged reporter's questions about the manner of the young woman's death. But in recent months Fiorina has talked openly - and painfully - about the 34-year-olds' drug overdose and the devastation it left in her family's wake.

Transforming personal narrative into a compelling political revelation is just one of the weapons that Fiorina has deployed on the Republican presidential nominee campaign trail to effectively propel her from outside-status, into the number two spot behind her arch-nemesis Donald Trump.

Once confined to the margins, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has been coasting on a wave of support since her poised performance at the CNN Republican debate in Texas and is now considered a real threat to Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. According to a poll released this week, Fiorina's support among Republican voters surged from 3pc to 15pc in the aftermath of the debate. Trump, in the same poll, dropped eight points.

Fiorina has been helped in part by The Donald who recently angered female voters by a barrage of sexist attacks on the 61-year-old former businesswoman. "Look at that face," Trump complained in an interview with Rolling Stone. "Would anyone vote for that?" Fiorina's "pitter-patter", Trump later told reporters at Fox News, gave him a "tremendous headache".

Fiorina's calm and dignified response to Trump's jabs was one of the most discussed moments at the recent Republican debate. Without stooping to personal attacks, Fiorina said that she believed "every woman" in America knew what Trump was referring to in his Rolling Stone comments.

"I think she's got a beautiful face, and I think she's a beautiful woman," a clearly chastised Trump said in response.

Fiorina's confidence and straight talking on the podium has helped to deflect widespread criticism of her leadership skills and business acumen in the wake of her disastrous tenure as CEO of Hewlett Packard.

Hired in July 1999 to restore energy and edge to the lacklustre institution, Fiorina made history as the first-ever woman to lead a Fortune 20 company.

But her HP tenure ended in disaster in 2005 when she was fired following unmet earnings projections, tumbling stock prices, and sweeping work-force cuts. Pillared as a heartless executive with a penchant for private jets and designer clothes, Fiorina was unable to shake off the corporate catastrophe. The Democrats gleefully labeled her "Carly Fail-orina" during her unsuccessful 2009 Californian Senate bid.

But in recent months on the Republican campaign trail, Fiorina's message of a political outsider who will bring conservative change to Washington, has resonated with voters who see her private-sector savvy as a valuable asset in times of economic need. Her polish at the microphone and deftness at pressing her personal story into the service of her political quest has also widened her support.

Unlike Hillary - who still visibly prickles with the mention of the personal - Fiorina's life is an open book. She has spoken of the painful and unsuccessful attempts by her and her husband, Frank, to add a child of their own to his two daughters from a previous marriage.

She has spoken too of her father's admonishment that she would never "amount to anything" after she decided to quit law school after one semester and the pride that he expressed decades later - following her climb from secretary to hot-shot executive - when she was appointed HP CEO.

Fiorina has also won widespread admiration for her very public battle with breast cancer, a diagnosis she received in 2009 the evening before she announced her Senate campaign run.

Despite her surprise diagnosis, Fiorina vowed to seek office, enduring a bilateral mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy during the gruelling campaign. A week before the election she was admitted to hospital with a 107-degree temperature after her breast implant became infected.

Her grit in continuing, admirers say, was typical of the woman who once silenced a sales meeting with a bunch of boisterous male executives by showing up with socks stuffed into her trousers and declaring that "her equipment matched theirs."

Now faced with the ultimate boardroom bully in Trump, Fiorina will need all the chutzpah she can muster in deflecting a barrage of personal and reputational attacks. But among senior Democrats, Fiorina is gaining grudging attention, with Senator Claire McCaskill last week predicating that at the very least, Fiorina will make an excellent - and formidable - vice presidential Republican candidate against Clinton.

The former outsider is poised to take on the challenge.

This week Fiorina had a message for Donald Trump - and all of her other opponents, Republican and Democratic alike: "that face", she told reporters, is here to stay.

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