Ex-HP Boss Carly Fiorina Talks Tough in GOP Presidential Race

Despite surging voter support, the former CEO of computer giant Hewlett-Packard faces a battle to secure the GOP presidential nomination.


After FOX News Channel held the first two August debates for the Republican presidential nomination — one for those polling high and one for the underdogs — two voter favorites emerged: Donald Trump and former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Cara Carleton (Carly) Fiorina. Fiorina, who in 1998 was named the most powerful woman in business by Fortune magazine and later became the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company, faces an uphill battle to become the first female U.S. president. Then again, she thrives on adversity.

Until now the biggest roadblock to Fiorina’s campaign was her potential exclusion from the next debates, to be held by Cable News Network at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 16. Initially CNN had planned to decide who would participate in the main event by averaging each prospect’s results from polls taken between July 16 and September 10, which would have consigned late bloomer Fiorina to the second tier once again. Her campaign had been squabbling with the Republican National Convention, which she argued should be doing more to support her bid to bend the rules, given her skyrocketing ratings.

But on Tuesday, CNN announced that it had reevaluated its criteria and will now allow any candidate ranking in the top ten in polling between August 6 and September 10 to join the debate line-up. The network said it changed its rules because there have only been three national public polls since the August debate.

It’s not yet clear if this will secure Fiorina a spot, but surveys measuring voters’ opinions of Republican contenders show that her popularity has surged in recent weeks. As of August 24, Raleigh, North Carolina–based Public Policy Polling put her at No. 3, with 10 percent support, behind Trump (35 percent) and Ohio Governor John Kasich (11 percent). CNN will announce the participants in its debates on September 10.

Fiorina announced her candidacy in May to little fanfare, though most in the investment community know her for her stint at the helm of HP as it weathered losses, layoffs and changes to company culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As boss of the Palo Alto, California–based computer maker, Fiorina oversaw a shift toward more innovation but also controversial cost-cutting; about 30,000 employees were reportedly let go during her tenure. After tension brewed among the top brass, inciting what Fiorina has called a “boardroom brawl,” she was asked to resign in early 2005.

Where others might downplay such an experience, Fiorina has taken a different tack. She’s embracing her past to persuade voters that she knows how to manage, even in tough times, and that she can bounce back from trouble. Her other favorite talking points: narrowing the gap between what she describes as the “political class” and “regular people,” and encouraging smaller government.

Fiorina, 60, joins a long line of presidential hopefuls who have touted their business background as proof that they’d be a good commander in chief. But in other ways she stands apart, and not just because she’s a woman in a male-dominated political arena. Fiorina has battled breast cancer and claims to “know more world leaders on the stage today than anyone running, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton.” Through her dealings in the telecommunications industry, she says, she has met with everyone from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and she has chaired the External Advisory Board of the Central Intelligence Agency. During the August GOP debate on Fox, rival Rick Perry said that he “would a whole lot rather have Carly Fiorina over there [in Iran] doing our negotiation than John Kerry.”

After one semester in law school, Fiorina began her career with real estate firm Marcus & Millichap as a secretary and a broker. In 1980 she joined AT&T, where a decade later she broke the first of several glass ceilings by becoming the telecom giant’s first female officer, taking the post of senior vice president of hardware and systems. Having led the spin-off of Lucent Technologies from AT&T in 1995, she served as president of Lucent’s global service-provider business and presided over a controversial deal with PathNet that saw Lucent sell the fiber optics start-up more than $400 million worth of fiber optics gear but cover all of the costs.

In 1999, Fiorina jumped to HP to succeed Lewis Platt as CEO. She helped lead the company’s contentious $25 billion merger with Compaq Computer Corp., then the largest such deal of its kind. Fiorina turned to politics in 2006, advising John McCain on his failed presidential campaign before unsuccessfully running for Democrat Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in California in 2010. Now the fate of her own bid for America’s highest office may be in CNN’s hands.

Follow Kaitlin Ugolik on Twitter: @kaitlinugolik.