This isn’t the first time that Carly Fiorina has captivated Republican primary voters with her eloquence and tenacity. Five years ago, she overpowered two GOP opponents in California’s U.S. Senate race before losing to Democrat Barbara Boxer.
It was five days before the 2010 midterm election, and things weren't looking good for Carly Fiorina. Polls showed her falling further behind Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in California's U.S. Senate race. But you wouldn't know it from watching Fiorina greet voters at a rally outside Sacramento.
"How are you?" Fiorina asked a voter as she worked the crowd. "Thank you so much for coming out, thank you so much for coming out!"
She spoke of how she rose from secretary to CEO of Hewlett Packard and wasted little time in attacking her opponent.
"Barbara Boxer’s answer is to spend more, borrow more, bail out more," Fiorina said that day. "But we know that doesn’t work – because it hasn’t worked."
"She gave Barbara Boxer a huge run for her money," recalls Beth Miller, a senior advisor on Fiorina's 2010 campaign.
Miller says even though Fiorina lost by a million votes – 52 percent to 42 percent – it wasn't from lack of skill. "We all think of Ronald Reagan as a gifted communicator, and no one is Ronald Reagan. But Carly has this unique ability to be able to connect with people, with voters."
You can hear echoes of her attacks on Barbara Boxer when Fiorina goes after Hillary Clinton.
"If you want to stump a Democrat, ask them to name an accomplishment of Mrs. Clinton," Fiorina said in a memorable line during the recent CNN GOP debate.
Just before Fiorina took the debate stage that night, Jon Fleischman caught a quick glimpse of her from the audience.
"I saw this kind of fierce determination," he says.
Fleischman publishes California's most influential Republican blog, the Flash Report. And that look in Fiorina's eye reminded him of a pivotal moment in her 2010 primary campaign, just before a speech to the California Republican Party's convention.
Fiorina was relatively unknown and knew she had to make a good impression. She spoke without a script for half an hour, and as Beth Miller recalls, "You literally could hear a pin drop."
That speech – along with an infamous Fiorina campaign web ad with demon sheep (see below) – helped propel her to a big victory over her two Republican opponents.
And then, Fleischman says, "One of the things that I think I admired about Carly Fiorina is, when she won the primary in California for U.S. Senate, she didn’t really do that traditional tacking-to-the-middle."
Of course, that probably didn't help her in an overwhelmingly blue state like California. And Democrats turned Fiorina's core strength – her business record – into a liability with voters.
During a debate, Senator Boxer said Californians must choose whether to re-elect her, "or if they want to elect someone who made her name as a CEO in Hewlett-Packard laying thousands and thousands of workers off, shipping their jobs overseas, making no sacrifice while she was doing it, taking $100 million."
Boxer’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, says that’s what Fiorina can look forward to if she survives the Republican presidential primary.
"Carly Fiorina has a similar record to Mitt Romney on layoffs and outsourcing, but she did them herself," Kapolczynski says. "Her entire candidacy is based on her record at HP."
Kapolczynski says although Fiorina is a great performer, she often gets defensive when her record is questioned. And even Fiorina's supporters acknowledge she’ll have a target on her, now that she’s rising in Republican primary polls.
But as she told a top campaign aide in 2010: "I can take a punch and I can throw a punch."
Just ask Donald Trump.
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