The first female head of a Fortune 20 company — and the first to be fired by its board — Carly Fiorina was anything but a dazzler when she debuted on the political stage during the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain in 2008.
But that was then.
Now, Mrs. Fiorina’s polished performance in her bid in California to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer is turning heads among influential social and religious conservatives. Win or lose, they say, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO’s campaign-trail transformation and her political convictions make her a top-of-the ticket contender for the Republican Party down the road.
“Carly Fiorina could easily be a presidential candidate,” said Larry K. Burbach, a Burbank advertising executive and social conservative. He was one of many attendees at a recent private gathering of conservatives who were wowed by an address by Mrs. Fiorina.
Besides being impressed by her fiscal know-how — critiquing the state of California’s tax structure, environmental regulations and state employees retirement benefits on businesses — they admired her general election strategy of emphasizing her opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, a risky move in a liberal-leaning state.
“Carly Fiorina showed the kind of leadership that we so desperately need,” said Beverly LaHaye, chairwoman of Concerned Women for America. “The ovation she received from some of America’s leading conservatives said it all.”
While former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has parlayed defeat as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008 into a national political platform, a victory by Mrs. Fiorina in the nation’s largest state would quickly elevate the former CEO’s profile while giving her time to hone her policy and political skills on Capitol Hill.
But first she has to defeat Mrs. Boxer. Polls show Mrs. Boxer, a three-term incumbent Democrat, holding an average 3 percentage point lead, leaving Mrs. Fiorina well within striking distance of becoming the first California Republican elected to the Senate in 22 years.
About 3 percent of voters remain undecided. A poll released over the weekend by Reuters/Ipsos had Mrs. Boxer ahead by 1 percentage point.
In the liberal-leaning state where President Obama remains popular, Mrs. Boxer is one of the few Democrats locked in heated battles who have embraced the party’s policy victories. The senator has touted her support of the stimulus bill and the landmark health care law and her push for an exit strategy in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Boxer also has tried to solidify her strong lead with the state’s large Hispanic population by highlighting her push for major changes in the nation’s immigration laws.
“I’m fighting for comprehensive immigration reform,” Mrs. Boxer said after a campaign rally at an active retirement community in Lincoln, 30 miles northeast of the state capital, Sacramento.
“Of course we need border security, but we also need to make sure we have a plan so that people who work hard here … have a pathway to legality. And it would really boost our economy.”
Mrs. Fiorina has been able to keep the race tight by tapping into the anti-government fervor of the state’s large swath of independent voters — voters angry not just with the federal government’s spending, but also with the state’s higher-than-average unemployment rate and a budget crisis in Sacramento requiring service cuts across the state.
“If you look at Sen. Boxer’s long track record of 28 years in Washington, D.C., you will see this: She is for more taxes, she is for more spending, she is for more regulation, and she is also for big government and elite, extreme environmental groups,” Mr. Fiorina said in a recent debate.
On the touchy topic of immigration, Mrs. Fiorina said the nation needs a better guest-worker system to help farmers fill jobs in places like the state’s Central Valley, and blasts Mrs. Boxer for casting the deciding vote to defeat one three years ago.
“When she cast that vote, she said that immigrants were a source of cheap labor that threatened the American worker. Barbara Boxer has been no friend of Fresno,” Mrs. Fiorina said during a campaign stop in the farm-oriented community 175 miles south of Sacramento.
“She has been no friend of the Hispanic community, and she has been no friend of the people of California.”
So, as the candidates travel the state sparring with each other on the stump, some conservatives say they’ve already seen enough of Mrs. Fiorina to have high hopes for her future.
“She really has communications skills like [Ronald] Reagan’s and whether or not she wins the Senate, she’ll become a national force — if she chooses to stay in politics,” said Stuart Epperson, Salem Communications chairman.