When it was Carly Fiorina’s turn to take the stage at a presidential forum in Oklahoma City, Noah Wolff was thinking of heading outside for a break.
“I thought of all the people, why is she here?” said Wolff, 19, a registered Republican and political science major at the University of Oklahoma.
But as Fiorina started speaking, Wolff was captivated by her message. While other candidates in the convention hall spent their time spewing standard conservative talking points and criticizing the current Democratic administration, he said, Fiorina outlined solutions, such as how she would negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
Wolff stood with the crowd in several ovations for the GOP presidential hopeful.
Previously, the only thing he knew about Fiorina was that Hewlett-Packard had fired her. “Maybe that’s why I was so impressed — I came in with very low expectations and she was just far and away the best speech,” he said.
Fiorina, who lost a U.S. Senate race in California in 2010 by 10 percentage points, has never registered above 3% in national presidential polls. But she is showing signs of momentum. She cracked the top 10 in a national survey for the first time last week, a requisite to win a spot in the first Republican primary debate in August.
In Denver on Saturday, she placed second in a conservative gathering’s straw poll — not an indicator of her likelihood of winning the GOP nomination, but a sign of the enthusiasm she is generating among grass-roots activists.
Fiorina also is consistently drawing rave reviews on the stump.
At a multi-candidate forum in Nashua, N.H., earlier this year, Republican activists who couldn’t pronounce Fiorina’s last name before her speech buzzed about her in the hallways afterward. Hundreds groaned in disappointment at an Iowa Republican fundraiser in May when Fiorina’s mic was cut after she ran past her 10-minute allotment.
Fiorina remains a long shot because of her resume. The last president who hadn’t held elected office before was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won the White House in 1952.
“And he had to win World War II to do it,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “So she’s probably not going to be president of the United States in January of 2017. Nobody campaigns to be a running mate or a Cabinet member, but if she continues on this trajectory, she’s going to be regarded much more favorably than she was at the end of the Senate race.”
When Fiorina is questioned about her lack of elected experience, she argues that her tenure running Hewlett-Packard showcases her leadership skills, and that the nation’s founders never intended for there to be a “permanent political class” — points she repeatedly emphasized during her Senate run.
Among some voters, who in polling view officials in Washington, D.C., with less regard than used-car salesmen, the lack of time in elected office does not disqualify Fiorina from the presidency.
“It doesn’t in my eyes,” said Jon McAvoy, 71, who saw her speak at a conservative breakfast club in Urbandale, Iowa. Fiorina’s ascension to chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, he added, shows “she’s no dummy.”
The retiree said that he hadn’t decided whom he would caucus for in February, but that Fiorina had earned a spot on his short list.
Fiorina is among the most active candidates in the states that have the first two contests of 2016, greeting voters at more than 60 events in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent months. At forums, house parties and pizza joints, Fiorina describes her rise from a Kelly Girl secretary to the first female leader of a Fortune 20 company. She relishes criticizing Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton as a failed secretary of State.
These types of venues are tailor-made to what even her critics acknowledge is one of her greatest strengths — a charismatic, compelling presence.
“She was very good on the stump,” said Rose Kapolczynski, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s campaign manager in the 2010 contest.
Losing in California to a Democratic stalwart is not prohibitive, several Republican sources say. But the 2010 race also demonstrated Fiorina’s greatest vulnerability: her track record at Hewlett-Packard.
Boxer painted her rival as a jet-setting CEO who laid off workers, shipped jobs overseas and destroyed HP’s storied culture before being fired and receiving a $21-million golden parachute.
Fiorina countered that such characterizations were false narratives perpetuated by Democrats and the media. But in her presidential bid, she’s framing unpopular moves she made at Hewlett-Packard as showing her ability to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure her company’s future success — a trait she argues is sorely lacking in the nation’s capital.
“People understand the one place where tough decisions are never made is in Washington, D.C.,” Fiorina said in an interview, pointing to the Veterans Administration scandal. “Wouldn’t it be great if politicians were held accountable for something other than great speeches and actually there were consequences for nonperformance?”
Several strategists who worked on her unsuccessful campaign and did not want to be named criticizing Fiorina noted that she had her own accountability issues: She was delinquent on bills from her Senate race and didn’t pay them off until shortly before she announced she was running for president — long after she repaid herself $1 million of the money she lent her campaign.
Fiorina, whose net worth is $59 million, left California and settled in Virginia after losing the 2010 race. Only one of her California political advisors is working on her presidential campaign.
The candidate will need to repeat her top-10 performance in the polls in coming weeks to qualify for the first GOP debate in August. The prime-time faceoff is a crucial opportunity to introduce herself to a national audience. Some Republicans are hungry to see a woman offering a sharp critique of Clinton on the stage.
Fiorina, who slams the notion that her gender prompts extra attention while boasting that it makes her unique among the GOP field, has said she’s confident that she’ll qualify. But some admirers are concerned about her ability to consistently place in the top 10 by midsummer.
“It’s difficult,” said Shannon McGinley, who hosted a house party at her Bedford, N.H., home for Fiorina.
More than 130 people attended, McGinley said, and Fiorina spent about 45 minutes taking pictures with them before speaking and taking questions for nearly an hour. People were clamoring for yard signs by the time she left.
Fiorina’s nascent campaign didn’t have any signs yet, nor was it staffed to turn voters into activists and organizers.
“I witnessed grown women shrieking when they met her” at the Iowa GOP dinner, said former state party Chairman Matt Strawn. “I didn’t see anyone after that moment taking down their names, addresses, emails, their cellphones.”
Whether Fiorina can turn that excitement into growth in the polls and an effective campaign organization could determine whether she can turn fans such as Wolff into supporters.
“I’m just waiting to see who exactly stands out,” he said.