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Fiorina, targeting Boxer, is still cultivating her base

As Senate candidate Carly Fiorina spoke to a standing-room-only meeting of local Republicans here, she hit familiar points -- her rise to become leader of Hewlett-Packard, her “common sense” approach to fixing the nation’s economy and her pledge to give incumbent Barbara Boxer the fight of her life.

Amid all the fiscal talk, Fiorina dropped in a line about her conservative social beliefs.

“Barbara Boxer has never faced a candidate like me. . . . I will not permit her, for example, just to assume that all the women of California will vote for her,” Fiorina told hundreds of people crowded in a hotel ballroom. “I say this as a proud pro-life conservative who believes marriage is between a man and a woman.”

The fact that Fiorina felt compelled to detail her views on abortion and same-sex marriage underscores one of her greatest challenges as she seeks the Republican nomination: The party’s most faithful voters are not convinced she is one of them.

Part of the reason is that, unlike her primary opponents, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine and former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, Fiorina is an unknown political quantity. She has never sought election to public office before now, so she doesn’t have a paper trail of legislation, statements and votes.

More than that, Fiorina’s own words threaten to undermine her efforts to forge an image in the Senate race, which is getting national attention.

Her prepared speeches and written statements on taxes, federal spending and the deficit are consistently conservative. But when asked about nonfiscal issues, she sometimes veers into more moderate territory.

She said last week that she supported President Obama’s effort to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy excluding openly gay individuals from military service.

The week before that, when asked for an assessment of the president’s first year in office, she said that although she disagreed with him on the economy and the decision to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, “I agree with many of the things he’s done. . . . I think that he is doing everything he can to keep the nation safe and I applaud him for that.”

That same week, a recording emerged of Fiorina praising the Rev. Jesse Jackson and saying that the nation will not be a “truly representative democracy” until women make up half or more of elected officials. Conservative pundits pounced, and people are still angry.

Fiorina said she stands by her statements. Although she disagrees politically with Jackson, she said, she applauds his efforts to highlight opportunities in Silicon Valley for minorities and the poor. On the matter of female politicians, she disputed suggestions that she was calling for quotas but said she believes that a true meritocracy would logically lead to more women in politics, business and other fields.

“We’re better off as an industry and a nation if everybody gets to play,” she said.

Fiorina said she finds the focus on such remarks “bizarre” and blamed DeVore’s underdog campaign for their dissemination.

“His campaign strategy seems to be to misrepresent me,” she said.

But these statements could take a toll on her nascent campaign because of voters’ unfamiliarity with her. She officially entered the race only in November, later than originally planned in part because she was being treated for breast cancer.

Fiorina began campaigning hard across the state last month, pitching her life story to farmers in the Central Valley, businesspeople in the San Fernando Valley, students at USC.

She touts her business background -- she is the only woman to have led a Fortune 20 company -- to emphasize that she’s a political outsider who will use her business sense to tackle the nation’s fiscal problems. But she also tries to soften her image as a hard-charging corporate titan who was ousted after a controversial tenure at Hewlett-Packard; she notes that she majored in medieval history and philosophy at Stanford.

“I know, yikes,” she told about 100 people at a Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. luncheon in North Hollywood. “So that made me, let’s face it, unemployable.”

Fiorina’s entree into business came after she dropped out of law school and, to pay the bills, became a receptionist at what was then a small real estate firm, Marcus & Millichap. Six months in, two brokers told her they believed she could do more than answer phones, type and file; she ended up helping them write deals and balance the books. The experience forged her beliefs about the importance of entrepreneurship, small businesses and creating opportunities for people -- qualities that she fears are threatened by big government, over-regulation and high taxes.

The one topic she typically doesn’t mention on the stump, unless asked, is her primary opposition. Preferring to fire criticism at Boxer, Fiorina paints the three-term Democratic senator as a career politician who has been an ineffective representative for Californians and who wrongly supports measures like a proposed cap-and-trade energy bill that Fiorina says will kill economic opportunity.

“I believe we have to start with a mind-set, which we as business owners understand, but frankly not all politicians understand,” Fiorina said. “We must fight for every job.”

But some of her statements, although they generate applause, are not grounded in reality. Fiorina regularly calls for increased transparency in government and says one of her first acts if elected would be to put federal budgets and legislation on the Internet. Both are already online and can easily be found.

While speaking at USC last week Fiorina said California spends more on education per pupil than “virtually 80% of the states.”

According to the state Department of Education, however, when spending is adjusted for regional cost differences, California ranked 46th in per-pupil spending in 2007, and the state budget shortfall has forced billions of dollars in education funding cuts since then. A U.S. Census Report for 2007 based on spending not weighted for such differences, ranked the state’s per-pupil spending 23rd of the 50 states and the District of Columbia and less than the national average.

Fiorina’s self-description as a political neophyte is also misleading. Although she has a spotty voting record and is making her first electoral bid, she has been involved in politics for years. She served as Sen. John McCain’s economic advisor and proxy during the 2008 presidential campaign and was a fundraising chairwoman for the Republican National Committee.

Fiorina’s name was floated as a potential contender for McCain’s vice presidential slot. She also served on a space exploration committee for President George W. Bush and on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition team in 2003.

Outsider or not, Fiorina believes she would be the toughest challenger to Boxer, partly because of her gender. Some voters agree.

“I think that helps her a lot,” said Barbara Olson, 57, who listened to Fiorina speak at the Republican Party of San Diego County’s meeting earlier this month.

But to meet Boxer in November she must first win the favor of the conservative voters who will dominate the June primary.

“I’m tired of RINOs” -- Republicans in Name Only -- “like McCain and Lindsey Graham,” said private investigator Rob Peterson, 62, who also attended the San Diego event. He plans to support DeVore. “He’s a lot more conservative.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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