By Josh Richman, San Jose Mercury News (TNS)
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Carly Fiorina blazed a trail as the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company, and the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard now seems to have an even bigger “first-ever” achievement in mind.
Fiorina, 60, is declaring “the end of the Obama era” at national conservative conferences, paying not-so-subtle visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, and courting potential contributors and staff for what looks like a presidential campaign by the only woman so far in the Republican field.
But even as “Carly for California” seems about to become “Carly for America,” Fiorina faces hurdles left behind by her business career and by the failure of her one political campaign. Despite using $6.5 million of her own money, her 2010 U.S. Senate campaign still has an outstanding debt. And having left California for the Washington Beltway a few years ago, she doesn’t have much of a geographic constituency.
Fiorina’s office in Virginia refused a request for a telephone interview this week. Spokeswoman Tracy Tribby — Fiorina’s daughter — said “she is booked this year.”
If Fiorina is angling for a White House run, she seems undaunted by a McClatchy-Marist poll released this week, which showed she has the support of 1 percent of GOP voters, trailing 13 other potential presidential candidates — all men.
But even if Fiorina can’t build enough momentum to be a real contender, a campaign would boost her visibility for other options. Perhaps she’s trolling for a vice presidential nod — though she might have to compete with Republican officeholders such as U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Or perhaps Fiorina is looking ahead to another California Senate run if Dianne Feinstein retires as widely expected in 2018; of course, she would have to move back here first.
Whatever her goal, her record is putting some obstacles in her way.
Her 2010 challenge to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer ended in a 10-point defeat even as Republicans made big off-year election gains elsewhere across the nation. And the last person to win the presidency without any experience in elected office was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had built name recognition and goodwill by commanding Allied forces in Europe during World War II before serving as the Army’s chief of staff, Columbia University’s president and NATO’s supreme commander.
California Republican Party officials this year alluded to Fiorina and to 2010 gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman as they stressed the importance of rebuilding the party by winning local elections as the way to build a bench of qualified candidates for higher office. Both candidates jumped into tough statewide races with no prior political experience.
“A lot of people, like moths, like to go to the light, and the light is those big races” at the ticket’s top, California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte said in March. Yet, he noted, restoring the Republican brand means “grinding it out on the ground” over several election cycles. Brulte declined to comment for this story.
State Republican Vice Chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon said she supports that philosophy too, though sometimes it’s good to “think outside the box.”
Fiorina “ran a strong campaign for Senate — she didn’t win, but she outperformed a lot of other people on the ticket,” such as Whitman, Dhillon said. “And I think she’s a conservative candidate. She certainly is as qualified as several other people who are running, if not more so.”
Her business record is a matter of contention. As she reshaped Hewlett-Packard to cope with the dot-com bubble’s collapse, the company’s stock value declined considerably and the board forced her to resign in 2005.
“She actually had a pretty decent vision” of reinventing HP with a richer set of consumer electronics supported by the company’s own services, said tech analyst Rob Enderle. “The problem was, she didn’t understand the underlying components, so executing that vision became problematic.”
HP’s board also didn’t appreciate how much time Fiorina spent focused on President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign instead of on the struggling tech giant, Enderle said. “Her history and job experience are going to kill her, but in terms of performance in front of an audience, she’s in (Sarah) Palin’s class and probably has a lot more depth. She’s very fast on her feet.”
“From an entertainment standpoint, I hope she runs,” he said. “I don’t think she stands a chance of winning, though.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr