Carly Fiorina is the latest Republican to emerge as the hope of the party’s pivotal center-right voters, as one-time favorite Jeb Bush stumbles and other would-be contenders struggle to get noticed.
But she’s got a long way to go. Past Septembers are full of pop-up political stars, little-known figures who capture the imagination, only to stagger once the public gets to know them.
Fiorina, a former business executive, was the undisputed star of Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate and now faces new, intense scrutiny. Her unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate race in California wasn’t close, she faces questions about her tenure as CEO at Hewlett-Packard, and she has to scuffle with a long line of others vying for the same Republican constituency.
Not to mention having to topple Donald Trump, the front-runner who pulls voters from every part of the ideological spectrum.
The opening for Fiorina is among the so-called establishment Republican voters who have been crucial in picking recent Republican nominees. Starting in 1988, they backed George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney and others who were conservative but not rigid in their ideology.
Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the former presidents, seemed the logical heir to this vote, and he quickly assembled a political network, raising huge amounts as he began the 2016 campaign. But Bush’s halting debate performances have hurt, and he’s seen as vulnerable.
“I don’t see the energy. He’s going to have to demonstrate more passion,” said Larry Higby, founding chairman of New Majority, a centrist California Republican group.
Nationally, that constituency has historically been pivotal in choosing a Republican nominee. While more ideological or telegenic candidates get more attention in the summers before election years, voters get more serious in the fall and usually turn to candidates who seem like potential leaders.
Trump was the choice of 29 percent of somewhat conservative voters and one-third of moderate-to-liberal voters, far more than anyone, according to the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 Monmouth University poll.
43% Republican voters who have no opinion of Carly Fiorina, according to the latest Monmouth University poll.
“It’s not clear yet, but if GOP voters refuse to get off their anti-establishment dime, she could be the fallback,” Patrick Murray, the poll’s director, said Thursday.
But, he said, “keep an eye on those who are stealthily trying to outflank Trump by neither attacking him nor sucking up.”
That would be Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and John Kasich, the governor of Ohio. “These are the two positive candidates in the race, and at some point you’ve got to think even GOP voters will be drawn to a happy warrior type,” Murray said.
Rubio has had a clear strategy to remain unrattled by all the Trump furor and to stick to his game plan, hoping that once voters get serious, they’ll take notice.
Kasich has quickly leaped into contention among New Hampshire voters. He intrigues insiders because he’s won twice in one of the nation’s premier swing states. And while he has a long Washington resume, he can also position himself as an outsider.
The opening for Kasich was clear Thursday at a country club in Irvine, in Southern California. New Majority members, fiscal conservatives who generally are considered moderates who appreciate compromise and comity, gave him a warm welcome.
While Fiorina “did great,” Kasich has more government experience, said David Horowitz, California’s Republican finance chairman.
He just has a great record.
David Horowitz, California Republican finance chairman, on John Kasich
Kasich spoke in his trademark down-to-earth style, recalling his upbringing as the son of a mail carrier and his record as a member of Congress willing to work with Democrats. “Washington needs to be fixed . . . it can’t be done with just one party,” he said.
Fiorina is now about to undergo the same kind of scrutiny newly minted political stars have to endure. “Her lack of elected experience is a big red flag, and I’ve also heard that Republicans are worried about her time at Hewlett-Packard,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
She’ll face questions about her 2010 Senate bid, which ended with a 10-percentage-point loss to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
California is a solid Democratic state, so no Republican was likely to beat Boxer. Fiorina did do better than Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, who lost by 13 percentage points. Afterward, Boxer said it had been the “toughest and roughest campaign of my life.” Boxer is not seeking re-election next year.
Fiorina also will be dogged by questions about her tenure at Hewlett-Packard, where she was ousted as CEO in 2005.
“The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster,” Trump charged Wednesday.
As CEO, Fiorina engineered a controversial merger with Compaq. She’s also been criticized because about 30,000 H-P employees lost their jobs during her stewardship. Fiorina has said the merger was needed to stay competitive.
And there will be new attention to her campaign claims. During the debate, Fiorina talked about a Planned Parenthood video showing “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” She dared Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama to watch it.
Trouble is, they wouldn’t see what she described. That image was not in the video, which featured a woman saying there was a fetus after an abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Fiorina’s first big test comes Friday. She’s scheduled to join other Republican contenders in Greenville, S.C., at a “Take Back America” forum scheduled by the conservative policy organization Heritage Action, a spinoff of the Heritage Foundation research center in Washington. Ten of her rivals are scheduled to be there, and 10,000 people are expected.