In one of the most dramatic moments of a breakthrough debate performance, Carly Fiorina backed a government shutdown in the fight over Planned Parenthood, painting a gruesome picture involving the harvesting of fetal tissue for medical research.
"This is about the character of our nation," said the Republican presidential hopeful, who was immediately criticized for misrepresenting the scene captured on a hidden camera by antiabortion activists.
But beyond that controversy and the battle over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Fiorina's forceful response stood out for another reason: It suggested a shift from the stance she took in her 2010 U.S. Senate race in California.
Then, during a debate with Democrat Barbara Boxer, she endorsed spending federal funds on research using human embryos that would have otherwise been discarded.
"It is when embryos are produced for the purposes of destruction, for the purposes of stem-cell research, that I have a great deal of difficulty," Fiorina said.
The former Silicon Valley business executive has become a serious contestant in the Republican race largely on the strength of her debate performances — in particular last week at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley — staking crisp, authoritative and unequivocal conservative positions.
But on immigration, global warming and other issues, her stance differs from views expressed earlier as a campaign surrogate for presidential hopeful John McCain in 2008 and in her own 2010 Senate bid.
Those shifts have led some conservative activists to question the consistency of her views just as Fiorina has begun rising in Republican polls.
On immigration, for instance, she told the Washington Post in 2008 she supported comprehensive reform, which included a path to citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally. Today, however, Fiorina supports an enforcement-driven approach to overhauling immigration laws, with no pathway to citizenship.
In other instances — on abortion, for example — Fiorina has not flat-out changed her position; she remains a staunch foe, save for a handful of exceptions. Rather, she has shaded her views or shifted her tone and rhetoric: the kind of trimming that politicians routinely do and Fiorina, running as a blunt-spoken political outsider, regularly condemns.
Campaigning for president, she fiercely emphasizes her opposition to legal abortion, referring to it as "butchery" and "a kind of barbarity," and calls for overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
But in another debate during her Senate race, Fiorina said that if elected, she would not initiate action to overturn Roe vs. Wade, or make opposition to abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court appointments. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, she called abortion "a decided issue."
As a Senate candidate, she also endorsed the Dream Act, a bill Boxer cosponsored, which sought to allow certain undocumented youth to earn legal status by attending college or serving in the military.
Now, running for president, Fiorina suggests passage of the measure would set "the cart backwards" unless the United States first secured its borders. "All we're doing is making the problem worse," she said in an interview with Yahoo News.
Asked for comment, the Fiorina campaign declined to address specifics.
Rather, a spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, passed on a blog post recounting her thoughts as Fiorina traveled through South Carolina. Among them was a defense of her U.S. Senate campaign in California, which "forced the Democrats to spend $30 million to defend what they thought was a safe seat.... This was a fight worth having."
Fiorina ran for Senate as an unswerving conservative. She opposed same-sex marriage, an assault weapons ban and abortion, except in cases involving rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother. She favored offshore drilling and suspending the state's landmark law to fight global warming.
All of those positions put her out of step with most Californians, and she lost to Boxer in a landslide.
Marty Wilson, who managed Fiorina's Senate campaign, said she was unwilling to compromise her views for the sake of expediency.
"Once you stake out a position, especially based on some kind of deep-seated moral belief, whether abortion or gay marriage, you don't just stand up there in front of the electorate and say, 'That was then, this is now,'" Wilson said. "People would accuse you of pandering, and rightfully so."
But that did not keep Fiorina from backing away from some earlier positions that proved troublesome as she vied for conservative support in California's Senate primary.
As a supporter of Arizona Sen. McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, Fiorina enthusiastically seconded his call for aggressive action to fight climate change, including a cap-and-trade system using market forces to reduce the emission of pollutants.
"I think it's important that when we think about taking on some of the great challenges now as opposed to leaving them to future generations, we have to talk not only about Social Security and medical care, but also about leaving our planet cleaner for the next generation than we found it," Fiorina said in a May 2008 interview with Grist, a website devoted to environmental news.
As a Senate candidate, however, Fiorina opposed cap-and-trade, which is anathema to many Republicans; she has since taken to suggesting overzealous environmentalists and government regulators pose a greater threat to the country than global warming.
She also changed her views on the financial bailout, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, that helped stabilize the economy during the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. "Something had to be done to loosen the credit freeze," Fiorina said in an October 2008 Fox News interview.
Campaigning for Senate, however, she said she would have voted against the bailout, which cost taxpayers $700 billion. As a presidential candidate, Fiorina has gone further, condemning the too-big-to-fail mentality behind the Wall Street rescue, calling it a top-down solution that has hurt small businesses and created unnecessary bureaucracy.
While subtle, her shifting statements have not gone unnoticed, especially by conservative activists. As Fiorina rises in polls, critics have begun circulating news articles and quotes from her 2010 California race, questioning her fealty to conservative principles.
Steve Deace, a talk-radio host in Iowa — the first state to vote in the presidential contest — says he believes "skepticism is warranted" about where Fiorina truly stands.
"You don't have to dig very far if you're a conservative to see some things that are troubling," said Deace, who recently endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination. "She needs to show these are not campaign conservative conversions."
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