So now, after convincing CNN to bend the rules and allow her to debate with the 10 GOP front-runners on Wednesday, the real question is, can she handle the biggest boardroom bully of all, Donald Trump?
The answer could mean the difference between whether Fiorina — the closest thing to a California candidate — sizzles or fizzles.
Just six weeks ago, she was little known outside of Silicon Valley. But an odd combination of her pitch-perfect performance during the first debate and a “Trump bump” in attention after The Donald hurled an unseemly insult her way last week — “Look at that face!” — has made her the unlikely candidate to watch Wednesday night inSimi Valley.
“To the extent she can pin him back and do so in a way that is firm will also reflect on her abilities as a leader,” said political analyst Larry Gerston, professor emeritus at San Jose State University. “If she can pull that off, she will do wonders for her own candidacy and shoot a pretty good dart into his.”
Last week, in the twisted fortunes of political mudslinging, the former HP CEO triumphantly declared that “maybe, just maybe, I’m getting under his skin” after a Rolling Stone article revealed the GOP’s bad-boy front-runner had mocked Fiorina’s physical appearance to his staff while watching her recently on TV:
“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump said of Fiorina. “Can you imagine that, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
The dig set off another round of “Did you hear what The Donald said this time,” but did nothing to stunt his huge lead in the polls among the pack of 16 GOP hopefuls.
Fiorina made the rounds on cable news networks last week, while Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and many of her other rivals took to social media to defend her and bash Trump. In the latest average of polls on the Iowa Caucus compiled by RealClearPolitics.com, Fiorina (6 percent) had moved past Bush and Walker into fourth place behind Trump (26.8 percent), Ben Carson (20 percent) and Ted Cruz (7.4).
Fiorina’s candidacy took off last month when she appeared on the earlier “undercard” battle of lower-polling candidates before the Fox News prime-time debate.
Quick, articulate and holding a command of the issues, Fiorina came across as the clear winner of her group. Even so, she almost didn’t make the cut for CNN’s prime-time lineup, until the network loosened its interpretation of a long-ago agreed-upon formula to choose the top 10 based on poll results from before and after theFox News debate.
While American voters may just be getting to know her, Fiorina’s poise under pressure made Silicon Valley Republicans — many of whom are still critical about her rocky tenure at HP — take a second look. At a backyard gathering of the Silicon Valley Association of Republican Women not long after the first debate, Debra Janssen-Martinez said, Fiorina was all the talk.
“A lot of people were surprised. They went, ‘Wow, where did she come from? Where have we been hiding her?’ ” said Janssen-Martinez, president of the association. “She killed it in the first debate, and she needs to have a repeat — reinforce the big bounce that she got.”
Among the group’s members, many still grumble about Fiorina laying off 30,000 HP employees, her controversial acquisition of Compaq, and the “boardroom brawl” that resulted in her firing in 2005.
“But as a whole, we like what she brings — practical experience. She became a CEO on her own. She didn’t marry the president. She worked her way up,” Janssen-Martinez said. “And she doesn’t need notes. She’s very spontaneous, she’s extremely prepared and extremely well organized, and even though she’s very poised and articulate, she is very graceful. The points she makes are spot on.”
Janice Lind, a Republican from Livermore, says she still doesn’t have a favorite candidate. When she watches Trump, “I have one ear and one eye closed because I’m afraid of what’s going to come out of his mouth.” And, Lind added, Fiorina still has a lot of explaining to do about her controversial time at HP.
“I’ll be interested to see how she does in the debates,” Lind said. “When we’re talking about American jobs, she was instrumental in sending a lot of them overseas and reducing the workforce here in our country.”
Still, she called Fiorina an “incredibly intelligent woman, extremely articulate and talks about issues people are concerned about.”
Along with facing Trump, Fiorina will be debating nine other men, including Bush, Cruz, Carson and Marco Rubio. As the only woman on the stage, she — as well as the men — will have to be careful.
“It is still very difficult for male candidates to feel comfortable going against and attacking women, with the exception of Donald Trump, but he hasn’t done it to her face,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California School of Public Policy.
“When they attack a woman candidate, they don’t want to look like they are beating up on a girl,” Jeffe said. “The woman candidate has to be careful in being aggressive that she doesn’t come across as being labeled bitchy or shrill. It’s the reality of politics today.”
In some ways, Trump’s degrading remarks may help Fiorina.
At least one Republican woman who has supported Trump all along says his comments about Fiorina went too far.
“That was so unfair. You can’t talk about a person’s looks,” said Henriette “Hank” Hagman, who often goes door-to-door in her Moraga neighborhood to push Republican causes. “Of course, he gets criticized all the time for his hair and the way he holds his mouth and his expression, but for him to throw that at Carly makes him look very small.”
And so, all eyes will be on Fiorina on Wednesday night. Janssen-Martinez and other local Republicans plan to gather at Mariani’s Restaurant in Santa Clara to watch and find out whether she has staying power.
“Clearly, this is a big moment for her, and I think it speaks to the fact that she is getting a lot of attention both from the media and the public,” said Melinda Jackson, associate professor of political science at San Jose State University. “It’s going to be important to see if she can keep the momentum going.”
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.
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