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Fiorina, once an afterthought in GOP race, fends off attacks and fights for a debate slot

Fiorina, once an afterthought in GOP race, fends off attacks and fights for a debate slot
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina shucks an ear of corn at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 17. She is criticizing CNN and the Republican National Committee over the qualifying criteria for the next GOP debate. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Conservative author and media personality Ann Coulter declared on a recent radio show that she despised presidential candidate Carly Fiorina "with the hot, hot hate of a thousand suns" over her support for birthright citizenship. Her ascension in the GOP field was prompted by "affirmative action among Republicans," Coulter said.

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, who was a front-runner in the presidential polls at this point four years ago, and other conservatives questioned Fiorina's judgment for a speech she made shortly after Sept. 11 praising the contributions of Muslims to society.

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And in recent weeks, Democrats have been highlighting stories about Fiorina's rocky tenure at Hewlett-Packard. The super PAC backing Fiorina's candidacy went on offense, taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times on Thursday defending her stewardship of the Silicon Valley firm.

The attacks come at a crucial time as Fiorina tries to claw her way onto the prime-time stage at the September Republican debate in California. It's quite a turn from earlier this year, when Fiorina was such an afterthought in the race for the GOP nomination that no one bothered with her (aside from Donald Trump, who appears to enjoy poking at much of the GOP field). Some of her Republican rivals even routinely praised her.

"Nobody was worried too much about her before, no one was attacking her, looking at her record. All of those things can happen once you actually become a threat to somebody," said Katie Packer Gage, a GOP strategist and deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid. "That's a good problem to have."

After announcing her candidacy, Fiorina, who in 2010 unsuccessfully ran for Senate from California after being fired from Hewlett-Packard, routinely registered 0% support in the polls. But a sterling performance in what some called the "happy hour debate" in August — featuring GOP candidates who failed to register enough poll support to crack the top 10 — has fueled momentum.

In national polls and surveys of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire since the Aug. 6 debate, Fiorina regularly places in the top third among the 17 GOP candidates. In some surveys, Fiorina bests former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all of whom appeared in the prime-time debate.

Still, it may not be enough to vault Fiorina onto the main stage for the Sept. 16 debate that CNN will host at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. The cable news station will use averaging of polls since July 16 — weeks before Fiorina began to improve her standings. The candidate described the criteria as unfair because it was based on polling that measured name identification more than anything else.

"It's a little bit like saying if you have a lousy game in the preseason, and you play great all season long, and you make it to the playoff — you don't get to play in the playoffs because of the preseason game," Fiorina said on Thursday in response to a question from a voter in La Mars, Iowa, about the debate criteria, according to NBC. "It kind of doesn't seem fair to me."

A Fiorina campaign official went further, lashing out at CNN and the Republican National Committee, which sanctioned the debate, as "rigging the game to keep Carly off the main debate stage next month."

There were more national polls before the August debate than there are expected to be since then, leading Fiorina deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores to argue that the rule amounts to the RNC "putting their thumb on the scale" in favor of establishment candidates.

"We're proud of Carly's debate performance. We're excited that grassroots voters around the country want to hear more from her," Isgur Flores wrote to Fiorina supporters. "… It's a simple question: Will we have a fair debate process or will the political establishment keep ignoring grassroots Republicans?"

Carly for America, the pro-Fiorina super PAC, urged its backers Monday to sign a petition demanding that CNN and the RNC include the candidate during the prime-time debate, arguing that she's best-suited to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The mainstream media is doing everything they can to keep Carly out of the debate because they know Carly is Hillary's fiercest and most effective critic," said an email sent to supporters. "And the RNC's support of CNN makes it clear the political establishment in DC wants to keep Carly out of the prime-time debate because she isn't afraid to challenge the failures of the professional political class."

Fiorina's support in the polls is driven in part by restive voters who are frustrated by the status quo and are seriously considering outsiders such as her, businessman Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson.

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"We're living in a new time now where we really need change," said Greg Long, a 68-year-old limo driver who heard Fiorina speak at the State Historical Museum of Iowa steps away from the gold-domed state Capitol in Des Moines. The registered Republican favors Fiorina and Carson. "We really need change. We've been doing the same old thing over and over again and getting the same lousy result."

Fiorina makes her case by saying polling shows that the majority of Americans think the federal government is corrupt and that professional politicians are more focused on themselves than the nation's well-being.

"The political class has failed you and that's what I think you're seeing reflected in my candidacy, among others," Fiorina said at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

Judy Shkolnick and Judy Deutch did not know much about Fiorina aside from her tenure as the chief of Hewlett-Packard. But the two Democrats were so impressed by Fiorina's debate performance, they decided to see her in person. After listening to Fiorina's hourlong speech to Jewish voters in Waukee, a suburb of Des Moines, they said they found Fiorina electrifying.

"She could answer any questions thrown to her," said Deutch, 64, a Clive resident who works in insurance compliance. "She seemed very competent, knowledgeable and a fresh change."

Twitter: @LATSeema

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