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Fiorina May Find Center Stage Uncomfortable

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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There is a strong desire in Republican circles for Carly Fiorina to be on the main stage in the next presidential debate.

Few in the party say the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive has any chance of winning the nomination or even think she is the best candidate. Instead, they argue that a party that has a problem with female voters can ill afford a sizable top-tier field that's exclusively middle-aged or older men. Moreover, they love her slashing attacks on Hillary Clinton, whom Fiorina frequently calls a liar. 

Fiorina obviously would relish greater visibility, and her supporters anticipate that unlike the first presidential debate, on Aug. 6, when she was on the undercard, she'll be part of the main event Sept. 16.

If so, there will be a new level of scrutiny that she may not find altogether welcome.

There are two basic rationales for the Fiorina candidacy: She's not a politician, and she was a successful business executive who knows how to run the economy and has dealt with world leaders.

The trouble is, she was a politician. She ran for the Senate in California in 2010 and lost by more than 1 million votes to the incumbent, Barbara Boxer. True, California is a Democratic state, but that was a banner year for Republicans, and Boxer never has been as popular a vote-getter as the state's other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein.

During that campaign, Fiorina was seen as smart but politically naive. She displayed a tendency, that remains evident in her presidential quest, to go into attack mode, which created sympathy, even some Republicans acknowledge, for the hard-edged Boxer.

But her central liability in that campaign was the qualification she held up as her chief asset: her experience as a high-level business executive. Starting as a receptionist, she climbed the corporate ranks. In 1999, she was named CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the renowned global technology company. She was No. 1 in Fortune magazine's first list of the most powerful women in business.

Not long after arriving at HP, she engineered the deal of the year, a huge acquisition of Compaq, the personal computer company.  

That soon went south. Profits disappointed, the stock plummeted, she alienated the families of Hewlett-Packard's fabled founders, along with many employees, and she lost the confidence of the board of directors. In 2005, she was fired.

She walked away with a package worth $42 million, which could be hard to explain to voters struggling with jobs and stagnant wages.

Fiorina still insists she was a victim of a "boardroom brawl" and dismisses criticism of her record. She says the company doubled in size and added jobs on her watch.

That's true, but only as a result of the Compaq acquisition, which many analysts consider a catastrophe. The company now is splitting into two divisions. Fiorina usually dismisses criticism of her claims of success as partisan or politically motivated.

She also boasts of her international experience, claiming she has dealt with more heads of state than any candidate other than former Secretary of State Clinton, and that she understands President Vladimir Putin of Russia. 

Yet many of her international meetings were with business groups; she had one rather short one-on-one session with Putin in 2001.

The 60 year-old candidate has an appealing story beyond her rise in business. She's a breast cancer survivor, and is admirably transparent about the death of her stepdaughter from drug abuse and has committed herself to fighting this scourge.

And if she gets on the big stage, she might be the one to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, who often disparages women, including Fiorina. Nonetheless, her two chief calling cards, as a successful business executive and a non-politician, may create more problems than opportunities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net