Carly Fiorina fought and scraped her way to the top of the male-dominated business world, becoming chief executive of one of the tech industry’s iconic companies.
She fought and scraped her way from an afterthought in the crowded Republican presidential field to the hands-down winner of Wednesday night’s Reagan Presidential Library debate.
The question, now that Fiorina is having her moment: Does her underfunded campaign have the capacity to reap the benefits of her newfound momentum?
“We’ll see if she capitalizes ... meaning raising some money so she can go out and begin making her case in the early states and beyond,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist who is neutral in the Republican race. “The calendar has not changed. This is still a marathon and only candidates with the financial means are going to be able to go the distance.”
The first nominating votes in the contest are set for just over four months from now in Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Then comes a sprawling succession of primaries and caucuses.
Larry Gerston, a longtime Fiorina watcher and emeritus professor of political science at San Jose State, said after her widely acclaimed debate performance that the hard part is just beginning.
“This will be her moment. Not [Wednesday] night, really, but the next two-three weeks, assuming the next few polls show she’s moved up,” he said.
Fiorina had won positive reviews after the first debate in August and has been well-received in the early-voting states. But that has not translated into strong fundraising, key endorsements or the organizational strength needed to seriously compete for the nomination.
Republican donors, notably in California, have been intrigued by Fiorina’s rise from an asterisk in the polls to the top tier of candidates, but many have held off on opening their checkbooks. Her debate performance could convince them to donate.
Fiorina’s campaign declined to provide details about fundraising, but the candidate headlined a fundraiser Thursday night in Los Angeles hosted by notable GOP donors, including former Univision chief Jerry Perenchio.
“Mr. Perenchio is very proud of her; he thinks she won the debate and he will continue to support her,” said Cassandra Vandenberg, a political advisor to Perenchio, who has donated more than $1 million to the super PAC backing Fiorina.
The super PAC, Carly for America, said Thursday that it had already seen an uptick in donations since the debate.
“We have definitely seen an increase in fundraising, an increase in Web traffic and an all-around surge of support,” said spokeswoman Katie Hughes, though she declined to provide details.
For all the raves, there is the risk of getting too carried away.
David Woodard, a Republican strategist and pollster at South Carolina’s Clemson University, says it’s important to distinguish between activists and political insiders — who might have hung on every word of the marathon debate — and the more typical voter.
He says that in 20 years of polling, the winner of the South Carolina primary has never finished higher than fourth place in surveys taken around this stage.
“People have to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas and that all before they start focusing on politics,” Woodard said. “I’m not saying [Fiorina] didn’t do well. She certainly showed herself to be a viable candidate.”
But, he added, even in the state that votes third in the GOP contest, “If you were to ask Republicans right now, I bet not even 10% of them could name her.”
Some political strategists thought Fiorina did not fare as well as the marathon debate went on, a potential problem as voters give her a second, third or fourth look.
“She’s a very good communicator, she speaks a language that’s very understandable and she’s very articulate,” said Don Sipple, a veteran political communications consultant who is watching the Republican contest from the sidelines.
“But she could use some work on her personal presentation,” he added. “She seemed a little strident and acerbic as the night wore on.”
With the heightened attention, Fiorina will no doubt face heightened scrutiny.
Her record will be scoured, notably her chief credential — her rocky tenure as the chief of Hewlett-Packard, where Fiorina oversaw the layoff of 30,000 workers, the offshoring of jobs, and a sharp drop in stock value. Other areas for inquiry include Fiorina’s landslide loss to Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010, and her spotty voting history.
In recent days, a supporter of one of Fiorina’s Republican rivals shared Boxer’s opposition research book from the 2010 campaign with reporters. The 219-page tome includes her tenure at HP, her net worth and property holdings, and details about her divorce.
Critics who railed against Fiorina during that campaign, such as the granddaughter of HP co-founder David Packard, could reemerge.
Fiorina got an early-morning dose of the heightened vetting on Thursday on NBC’s “Today Show,” when she was asked why Republicans should rally behind a candidate whose last two major endeavors — her tenure at HP and the 2010 Senate run — ended, respectively, in her firing and a crushing defeat.
“When you lead, you challenge the status quo, which is what the American people want now,” Fiorina said, offering her rote response to questions about her dismissal. “And you make enemies when you challenge the status quo — and I made some.”
She was cut off by host Savannah Guthrie, who asked whether those blots on her record were a weakness.
“I don’t think it’s a weakness at all,” Fiorina curtly replied. “All of us are going to have to defend our track record.”
A look at her rise to recognition in the Republican primary field:
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