DENVER — Ben Carson repeated Sunday as the winner of the Western Conservative Summit’s Republican presidential straw poll, but Carly Fiorina stole the show.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO placed second to Mr. Carson and ahead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker after a generating favorable buzz with a reputation-making speech Saturday that drew rowdy cheers and multiple standing ovations, followed by a mobbed press conference and book-signing.
She finished in second place even though a good number of attendees knew little or nothing about her going into the sixth annual summit, compared with longtime conservative favorites such as Mr. Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Fiorina comes in not very well-known, unless you’re a political junkie family like ours that watches Fox all the time,” said Centennial Institute director John Andrews. “A lot of people had just vaguely heard the name Fiorina. In fact, somebody just now was praising her to me and couldn’t pronounce her last name.
“So she was starting from a low baseline when she stepped onto the stage Saturday morning, but she had a lot of upside to realize,” Mr. Andrews said. “And she has the speaking gifts and interview gifts to go ahead and cash in — which she did.”
Ms. Fiorina won over the audience with her no-nonsense views on big government and national security, compassion for those hit hardest by Democratic programs like Obamacare, and an unflinching take on her own struggles, which include a battle with cancer and being fired from Hewlett-Packard.
She was able to play the “woman card” — for instance, recounting how she was asked whether her “hormones” would interfere with her serving as commander in chief — in a way that had men cheering as loudly as women.
“Ladies, here’s a little test: Can any of you think of a single instance in which a man’s judgment might have been clouded by his hormones?” she said to raucous applause and laughter. “Any at all? Including in the Oval Office.”
Nobody needed reminding that Ms. Fiorina is the only female Republican presidential candidate at a time when Hillary Rodham Clinton, the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, is casting her candidacy as a historic opportunity to put a woman in the White House.
“Hillary Clinton must not be president of these United States, but not because she’s a woman,” Ms. Fiorina said. “Hillary Clinton must not be president of these United States because she lacks a track record of leadership, because she is not transparent, and because her policies are bad for the people of this nation.”
Mr. Carson, a former neurosurgeon, won the straw poll with 224 votes over 201 for Ms. Fiorina, followed by Mr. Walker with 192. All three would-be candidates spoke at the summit, which has proved to be a virtual prerequisite for winning the poll.
In fact, Ms. Fiorina may have won the poll outright if she had anything approaching Mr. Carson’s grass-roots army and its experienced get-out-the-straw-poll-vote operation. His supporters took advantage of the cheaper $25 ticket for the Friday and Saturday night events to juice voter turnout.
The summit drew six would-be Republican presidential candidates. The others were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Also appearing was a campaign surrogate, Rafael Cruz, father of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
The headliners were Mr. Carson and Mr. Walker, who received top billing and spoke Saturday night at the Colorado Convention Center’s Bellco Theatre, while Ms. Fiorina appeared before a smaller crowd Saturday morning.
A former neurosurgeon, Mr. Carson had plenty of comebacks to those who have dismissed him as a political novice because he has never run for public office. He noted that his campaign recently chalked up 200,000 donations, and “no one else even comes close to that.”
“Even though the professional pundits say, ‘You can’t do it because you’re not a politician,’ I would say, ‘I can do it because I’m not a politician,’” Mr. Carson said to loud cheers. “Nor do I ever want to be one.”
Mr. Walker touted Wisconsin’s improving economic and education conditions achieved during his tenure, even though he had to beat back a union-spurred recall election shortly after he took office in 2011, becoming the only governor in history to do so.
Asked how he would defeat Ms. Clinton, Mr. Walker cited three reasons: “If we’re going to beat a name from the past, we’re going to need a name from the future,” in an apparent jab at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother and father have served as president.
“If we’re going to beat somebody who embodies Washington … we need someone who is the anti-Washington,” Mr. Walker said. He also said that unlike Mrs. Clinton, “we’ve actually done something.”
Mr. Walker also showed that he can handle a curve ball. After a heckler from the audience shouted at him about his position on immigration, Mr. Walker said, “I’m used to protesters, so this is not uncommon. Probably exported in from Wisconsin.
“When you’ve had 100,000 protesters and death threats in front of your house, one or two guys shouting — what’s the big deal?” he said to applause.