In one of the most memorable scenes in her 2006 memoir, “Tough Choices,” Carly Fiorina recalled marching into the dark recesses of the Board Room — an upscale Washington, D.C.-area strip club — where a team of rival male AT&T colleagues had scheduled an important client meeting.
After the men recovered from the shock of her surprise appearance, she went toe to toe with the boys — and left the meeting with new power and respect.
“We cannot always choose the hurdles we must overcome,” Fiorina wrote of that incident early in her career, “but we can choose how we overcome them.”
Fast forward a decade and former secretary Cara Carleton Fiorina is again challenging the boys’ club as the only woman in a crowded pack of male GOP rivals, this time jostling for attention in the 2016 presidential contest.
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And, as she displayed when she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a 2010 California Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate — she is giving no ground.
“I asked her directly at a house party in March — ‘Carly, how are you going to get there? It will be impossible,’ ” said Sue Caro, the former chairwoman of the Alameda County Republican Party and one of the state’s most active GOP women.
Fiorina didn’t blink.
“I will raise $5 million — and I will break out in the debates,” Fiorina told her confidently.
“And that is exactly what she has done,” Caro said. “She clearly has everybody’s attention.”
After the first Republican debates in Cleveland earlier this month, Fiorina came out the undisputed winner of the second-tier debate of candidates who hadn’t polled in the top 10. She was also the only Republican whose numbers bounced up in all of the first seven post-debate polls, as the number-crunching fivethirtyeight.com website reported.
She didn’t stop with the debate.
Soon after rival candidate Donald Trump’s harsh words about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly — comments widely viewed as misogynist — Fiorina used the episode to draw a line to the gender gap in the race.
“When I started this campaign, I was asked on a national television show whether a woman’s hormones prevented her from serving in the Oval Office,” she told CNN. “My response was, can we think of a single instance in which a man’s hormones might have clouded his judgment?”
Trump fired right back: “I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than 10 minutes straight, you develop a massive headache. She has zero chance!”
Those who have watched Fiorina in action say if her status as the only female in the 2016 GOP race has boosted her chances, so have her well-honed communications skills, developed as the first woman CEO of a Fortune 20 company.
As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2010, “She had a lot of integrity and personal values,” said Harmeet Dhillon, the vice chairwoman of the state Republican Party. “Sometimes, women candidates in our party are pigeonholed into a particular background, but she didn’t fit into the usual categories.”
Working her way up the corporate ladder, “she has faced every kind of misogyny and challenge. She’s seen it all,” Dhillon said.
Republicans like Dhillon recall how Fiorina launched her Senate bid against three-term incumbent Barbara Boxer with a gutsy move: She showed up on stage after breast cancer treatments — including a double mastectomy and chemotherapy — with a joke. “Let me start with perhaps the most obvious question on your minds,” Fiorina said, motioning to her wig-free, nearly bald head. “What’s with the hair?”
She also won points for her comfort and ease in meeting with the press — a sharp contrast to GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the current Hewlett-Packard CEO, who has since endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and serves on his finance board.
Unlike Whitman, Fiorina invited reporters to sit down with her for long conversations, relished editorial board meetings and scheduled town hall meetings around the state.
But Fiorina — who had never before run for public office — was also forced to acknowledge key failures, including the fact that she hadn’t cast votes in most California elections.
“You know, people die for the right to vote. And there are many, many Californians and Americans who exercise that civic duty on a regular basis. I didn’t,” she said. “Shame on me.”
Fiorina also apparently rankled some two dozen state businesses and individuals — some of the leading California political consultants — when she still had not paid $492,606 in debts owed to them three years after her failed Senate campaign, as The Chronicle reported. She finally settled the debt in 2014 as she prepared her presidential bid.
Looking forward, her polished approach to the 2016 campaign most likely will be tested when past stumbles are once again referenced.
California Democrats like Bob Mulholland — the veteran campaign manager for the California Democratic Party and a major backer of Boxer — who invested time and energy battling Fiorina’s political ambitions, are to this day more than ready to remind the public of her problems. They include her infamous line to Congress, “There is no job that is America’s God-given right anymore.”
Still, Ruth Sherman, celebrity media coach and author, says Fiorina’s confidence and discipline suggest she may be the dark horse to watch in the GOP field — competing with Trump as a ratings booster during future debates.
As a debater, “there’s a linear aspect to the way she strings her sentences together — the reasoning makes sense,” Sherman said. “There is an arc — a beginning, a middle and an end — and she has her timing down.”
In public settings where sharp messaging is key, “smart women will do what they have to to take on the role in a way that lets the alpha males know” who’s running the show — and Fiorina does, Sherman said.
It seems that the former secretary, Sherman said, has so far exceeded all expectations by remembering what may be one of the most important rules in business: “Certainty sells.” Fiorina seems certain she can sell herself.