WASHINGTON — Carly Fiorina grew up afraid that she would lose her parents.
Writing in her book, she recalls how she would wake up and go stand by their bed, many times each week. When her parents went out, Fiorina stayed awake until they returned, chanting the Lord's Prayer over and over to calm herself.
When she started college, she was afraid that she wouldn't measure up, that everyone else was smarter. And when she quit law school, she was afraid again, and her father told her: "I'm not sure you'll ever amount to anything."
Fiorina is afraid no more. And after surviving a cancer scare last year — she called it "a moment of terror" — Fiorina says the last thing she's scared of is Barbara Boxer, the Democratic senator she's out to defeat in November.
Fiorina, one of three Republicans vying for the party's senatorial nomination in June, said her fears felt much smaller after her mother died. And after conquering so many of them, she says she's ready to help others conquer their fear of change. That, Fiorina says, is a leader's true job.
"If you want to achieve better performance of anything — of a team, of government, of a company, of a family — you have to try new things and set new goals and do some things differently," Fiorina said in an interview. "So you have to help people overcome their fear of doing things differently."
It turns out that Dad had it all wrong, too.
Two decades after dropping out of school, Fiorina catapulted to the top of corporate America. After she was recruited to head Hewlett-Packard, Fortune magazine called her "The Most Powerful Woman in Business." She became the first female chief executive officer of a Fortune 20 company, only to watch her company's stock drop by 50 percent. She received a $21 million severance when she was fired in 2005.
Now, at 55, Fiorina is out to parlay her personal fortune into membership to the nation's most exclusive club: the U.S. Senate.
It may seem an improbable reach for a woman who for years didn't even bother to vote, but Fiorina says her business acumen will serve her well in politics, particularly when jobs and the economy are paramount issues.
"I've actually created a job," she said. "I've actually met a payroll."
Fiorina has two very different personas.
Many say she's a savvy executive who broke the glass ceiling for women and is destined for national leadership.
"She has a wow factor onstage that is pretty much unmatched with most politicians," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose.
He said Fiorina would be a hit with voters who agreed with her views because "there's little doubt in my mind that she would go to the wall for those views. ... She is what you get."
To detractors, Fiorina is a tireless publicity hound who ruthlessly drove Palo Alto-based HP into the ground and fired thousands of its employees — some even called her "Chainsaw Carly."
"Her business experience is shameful," said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management. "And the only thing worse than her business experience seems to be her personal style."
He said Fiorina was "a spinning gyroscope of confusion" at HP who proved that she didn't know how to manage a large enterprise. "It was a remarkable turnaround," Sonnenfeld said. "Carly Fiorina came into a really healthy company and put it into a state of despair."
One thing's for sure: Fiorina doesn't shy away from the spotlight.
"Her best skill is promoting herself," said Douglas Branson, a business law and governance professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote a book about women in executive suites. "She was on something like 54 magazine covers in her first year as CEO." He called her "a show horse, rather than a plow horse."
Fiorina tells her own story in her bestselling book "Tough Choices." She was born into a middle-class family, her mother a homemaker and her father an academic. She got good grades and played the piano, enjoying the concentration it required. The family moved a lot as Fiorina's father taught at the University of Texas, Cornell, Yale, Stanford and Duke and took sabbaticals in London and Ghana. She was "perpetually the new kid in class," wanting desperately to fit in. She cried a lot trying to break into the cliques as a senior at Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham, N.C.
"I was surprised when I found out she was the president of one of the major corporations of the world," said David Green, her pre-calculus teacher at Jordan High. "As I remember, she was an excellent student. But did she stand out from the crowd dramatically? No."
When she graduated from Stanford, Fiorina feared leaving the protective bubble of a university. She went to UCLA Law School, with no enthusiasm. And on a Sunday morning, she had an epiphany while taking a shower, deciding that her life couldn't be about pleasing her parents. So she decided to quit law school.
She joined a temporary job agency called Kelly Girls, where she worked as a receptionist for many companies, including HP. She married in 1977 and moved to Italy, then returned to the U.S. and enrolled at the University of Maryland business school, where she caught the eye of the dean, who asked her to help out on a project involving the alumni program.
"She showed up in blue jeans with holes in the pants, like they used to wear back then, and said, 'Do you think a liberal arts graduate from Stanford can compete with the analytic jocks you bring in?'" said Rudy Lamone, then the dean of the business school. "She's an incredible woman and has great presence. She came in very, very well prepared, as she is in anything she attempts to do."
Years later, Fiorina would surprise the dean, and many others, when it was disclosed that she had a spotty voting record. Fiorina had little to say about it.
"Look, I may have made mistakes, but I won't make excuses," she said. "And there is no excuse for not voting."
Twenty-two years after quitting law school, Fiorina was recruited to be the chief executive officer of HP. She served as the company's president from 1999 to 2005. She got the job after spending nearly 20 years in top leadership posts at AT&T and Lucent Technologies.
Fiorina has become accustomed to the criticism of her years at HP, when she oversaw a merger with Compaq.
"The facts are that I managed HP during the worst technology recession in 25 years," she said. "All technology stocks were way down. ... Yes, during the depths of the dot-com bust and a merger we laid off about 28,000 people. We also created more than 40,000 jobs. We doubled the size of the company, from $44 billion to $88 billion. We quintupled the cash flow. And we tripled the rate of innovation, as measured in patents per day. I'll run on that record all day long."
Enderle said Fiorina is sharp but can easily step off script. When she worked for the John McCain presidential campaign in 2008, she made headlines by suggesting that neither McCain nor his running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had what it took to run a major business.
Fiorina acknowledged making a political error but didn't back away from her statement.
"I made mistakes, certainly but one thing I hope I always do is answer questions honestly, and sometimes my candor can be a problem," she said. "I'm not a practiced politician."
Fiorina said she's received a clean bill of health after being diagnosed and treated for cancer.
"Facing your own mortality is a profound experience, and cancer is something that everyone is terrified of. ... Having come through the experience, I understand the difference between what is profound and what is not," she said.
Fiorina said that she wants to cut the national debt and that she knows what it takes to cut billions from a budget. But first, she said, Washington must change from a "system designed for the insiders" and dominated by career politicians.
Fiorina said she's more than ready for the job.
"I've spent my whole life getting in the middle of very challenging situations where change and leadership and influence were required," she said. "And I don't shy away from those circumstances."