Carly Fiorina must prove she's more than a Hillary basher. And she's running out of time.
For months, the most trenchant criticisms of Hillary Clinton have come from an outlier Republican presidential candidate: Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Her January swipe at the Democrat — "Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something. Mrs. Clinton, flying is an activity not an accomplishment." — remains the most memorable of the nascent race.
Somehow, the press is still openly debating whether to take a Fiorina candidacy seriously. That debate should end. Carly Fiorina is most certainly a serious presidential candidate.
Still, even as her public profile has risen — she has enjoyed by my observation more favorable national press coverage than Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin — and even as she's connected with Republican audiences at cattle calls, her support has hovered in Celiac disease range, with just about one percent of the GOP electorate supporting her candidacy.
Fiorina has an iceberg ahead: She needs to rank among the top 10 Republicans who primary voters support before the middle of July. If not, she'll be banned from the debates, and she can spend a hot August in sunny California.
Half of Americans haven't heard of Walker, but he's shooting up in the polls. It's hard to find data that tells us anything about Fiorina's support, not because she's being ignored, but because pollsters aren't finding enough people who say they are for her candidacy. She's registering in the moment, but she's not making a long-term impression. When you can please crowds, but you can't move them to vote for you, you're stuck. Fiorina is stuck.
She has a month and a half to get unstuck. But here's her dilemma: When she sticks to Clinton criticism, she attracts the press and attention. For her to break out of the pack, she needs to distinguish herself from the men she's running against, and that means she'll need to set aside the Clinton stuff and start to focus on what makes her different.
The Clinton stuff does work in the moment. In speeches in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma, Fiorina has gotten standing ovations for her direct attack on Clinton's core character. Clinton, she says, is an ethical hot mess, entitled, secretive, and untrustworthy. "We have to hold her to account," she told an interviewer. "There's a whole raft of things Hillary Clinton has never explained satisfactorily."
In an interview with Andrea Mitchell, Fiorina delivered a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the facts that Republicans hope voters will keep in mind next fall about Hillary Clinton
Fiorina said that while Hillary Clinton has said some "wonderful things" as secretary of state, "it's also true that as secretary of state she took women's rights and human rights off the table for discussion with China. It's also true as secretary of state that she called Bashar al-Assad a positive reformer. It's also true that in 2011, when she was secretary of state, she said that Iraq was a free, stable, sovereign nation. And now we have a nation falling apart, Iranian influence growing, ISIS growing. It's true that she said that she could reset our Russia — our relationship with Russia — and Vladimir Putin is on the march. So, I think all of those things I just named go fundamentally to what is her track record." [Breitbart]
It's time for Fiorina to move beyond Clinton. Fiorina is a deft deliverer and packager of policy, an avid reader and interpreter of the news, and has all the right things to say, substantively. As a former CEO, she might be as crafty a communicator as Mike Huckabee is, and unlike Huckabee, she's not self-absorbed — not to an unusual degree, anyway, and she doesn't come off that way to voters. She has also motivated many people with her discussion of faith.
But if Wednesday is any indication, Fiorina might have decided to double down by being even more aggressive with Clinton.
In South Carolina, she was dogged by reporters who all but accused her of shadow-boxing. She held a press conference at a hotel where Hillary Clinton was slated to speak. Fiorina seemed exasperated by those questions, and she did not convincingly make the case that her obvious attempt to dog Clinton was anything other than an obvious attempt to dog Clinton, and in so doing, draw more attention to herself.
It's not the most artful strategy, but it's what Fiorina has going for. And she has a month and a half to make it work.