Oklahoma City — A Republican activist approached Carly Fiorina after her speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Saturday not just to pledge her support, but also to say that she hopes her daughter grows up to be like the longshot presidential candidate.
“My little girl is such a firecracker,” Marcela White, a native Romanian who immigrated to the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, says following the exchange. “She is not afraid to say what’s on her mind, she is really bold — I was really shy as a child — and Ms. Fiorina would be such a great model for my little girl.”
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO traces her polish on the stump to an apparently unlikely source: a class she took as a student at Stanford University in which the professor required her to read one book of medieval philosophy every week and distill it into a two-page paper.
Fiorina has emerged as a master of one of the oldest political arts: the stump speech.
She has a long road to travel before achieving anything like victory. She finished tenth in the SRLC straw poll, behind two senators who had to cancel their appearances at the event due to votes in D.C., Texas’s Ted Cruz (who finished third with 16.6 percent support), and Florida’s Marco Rubio (4.1 percent). Renowned brain surgeon Ben Carson, who like Fiorina has never held public office, won with 25.4 percent of the vote.
Fiorina did place ahead of the winner of the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum; if you squint, you can see how she might repeat his success. Certainly, she gave an eye-opening speech to a sleepy Saturday morning crowd in Oklahoma, drawing laughs and sustained applause when she recalled being asked if hormones disqualify a woman from serving as president.
“So ladies, this is a test: Can you think of a single instance in which a man’s judgment was clouded by his hormones? Anyone? Including in the Oval Office,” Fiorina joked, before turning serious. “Hillary Clinton must not be the president of these United States, but not because she is a woman. She cannot be the president of these United States because she is not trustworthy, and she does not have a track record of leadership.”
The statement landed with extra force given that it followed a wide-ranging discussion of foreign policy that culminated in a promise to make two phone calls on her first day as president. The first would be to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “to reassure him that this country will stand with the state of Israel,” and the second would be to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
“He might not take the phone call, but he would get the message,” Fiorina said. “And the message would be this: Until and unless you are willing to open every single nuclear facility in your nation to full and unfettered inspections, we the United States of America will make it as hard as possible for you to move money around the financial system, and we will keep that pressure on,” she said, pounding the podium for emphasis as the audience roared.
Fiorina says she has always written her own speeches, but her discipline and ability to win over a crowd on the campaign trail are markedly improved from her ill-fated 2010 bid to unseat Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.).
Unscripted moments have been a problem for her in the past. In the 2010 race, she got caught on a hot mic commenting on Boxer’s hair. And in 2008, she stumbled down the stretch of her time as a presidential-election surrogate when she said that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin couldn’t run a corporation.
“It is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company,” Fiorina said six weeks before Election Day. “So, of course, to run a business, you have to have a lifetime of experience in business, but that’s not what Sarah Palin, John McCain, Joe Biden, or Barack Obama are doing.”
When asked if she hired a communications guru to help sharpen her skills in preparation for a White House bid, Fiorina laughs.
“I had just come off cancer treatment,” she says of her 2010 campaign, a difficulty compounded by the death of her daughter in October 2009. “I was sick and heartsick.”
This time around, Fiorina has performed well while taking hundreds of questions from the media. She even has a ready answer to the suggestion that the 2008 gaffe undermines her own candidacy, based as it is on her corporate background.
“There are professions that take technical expertise; running a company is one of them . . . and certainly, running for office, the highest office in the land, takes a set of experiences; on the other hand, ours was intended to be a citizen government,” she tells NR. “The disciplines of metrics and accountability and transparency — those metrics, those tools, those disciplines apply to anything, and they certainly apply to the federal government.”It’s tempting to dismiss Fiorina given that no candidate in modern political history has won the presidency without previously holding public office, but opponents do so at their own peril.
“The big thing people forget is that she’s worth tens of millions of dollars,” says one unaligned GOP operative with presidential campaign experience. “She’s the only candidate in the race who can both catch fire online and raise millions, as well as self-fund any time she wants without breaking a sweat. She spent $5 million in a doomed California Senate race. She could spend a fraction of that and be the new big dog coming out of Iowa.”
Fiorina points to “retail politics,” rather than a major media buy, as the key to her candidacy. “I don’t have a plan to self-finance this race,” she says. For now.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.