Carly Fiorina: Praising Hillary, Pushing McCain

For the past 15 months, Carly Fiorina has given her life to John McCain. A brand-name businesswoman owing to her tumultuous tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina serves as "victory chairwoman" of the Republican National Committee and is the McCain campaign's most outspoken and energetic female surrogate. But as she strolled around a dining room in the battleground state of Ohio last week, praising "a focused, determined, intelligent, empathetic, powerful leader," she wasn't talking about the GOP nominee. She was talking about Hillary Clinton—a woman, she told the 50 women gathered to see her in a Columbus suburb, who'd been wronged. "Women in positions of authority, particularly bold women who are trying to change things, are … caricatured differently, commented upon differently and held to different standards," she said. "I watched all of this happen to Hillary Clinton."

This kind of talk was candy for the crowd—and Fiorina knew it. She'd traveled to Columbus at the invitation of Women for Fair Politics, a coalition of Ohio Clinton supporters formed to protest what they see as an injustice done to Hillary by the Democratic Party. Two weeks after their candidate dropped out of the race, the group's founders are far from falling in line behind Obama, a man they accuse of "Swift Boating" the Clintons and participating in an act of sexism. Mostly lifelong Democrats, the group reached out to Fiorina as part of a broader bolt toward the GOP. "We need to elect John McCain in 2008," said Cynthia Ruccia, a Franklin County Democratic Party official and group cofounder. "That's the only way the Democratic Party will learn it can't treat women this way."

The War for Women is on. In the two weeks since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, the GOP has pushed women to give its candidate a second look, lavishing praise on Clinton, wallpapering cable TV with female surrogates and, ever so discreetly, reminding female voters just how moderate McCain can be. While Republicans are happy to help sow Democratic discord (six of 10 men at the Columbus gathering were from the McCain campaign), few in either party expect a massive defection of liberal women. But the McCain campaign thinks that distaste over what happened to Clinton, combined with its candidate's appeal, could help McCain break through to independent females. They are a serious prize for the senator. With women making up 56 percent of the swing vote, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, wooing women could be McCain's most important task.

Fiorina is eager to be his ambassador, using her legendary communications skills to soften McCain's image. In the corporate world, she was known for embracing risk, and on the stump, she tries to make a virtue of McCain's weakest points. In Columbus, unprompted, she brought up Iraq: "When he said, 'President Bush, you're wrong about how to prosecute the war in Iraq … and Donald Rumsfeld [is] the worst secretary of Defense in history' … the Republican Party beat him every day."

But at H-P, Fiorina also earned a reputation for sometimes using her superior sales skills to mask underlying problems with the product. Trying to ease the Columbus women's fears about McCain's pro-life views, Fiorina claimed the senator "has never signed on to efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade." (McCain said in 2007 he thought Roe "should be overturned.") In her presentation, she strayed far from the GOP comfort zone, telling voters McCain "will not drill in ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]" and "diversity is about competitive survival."

These are the kinds of liberties a surrogate can take in the early days of a general-election campaign. But they reflect a broader dilemma facing McCain: as primary-season memories fade, can he really compete for women without losing his base? It'll take more than good surrogacy. Between now and November, some of the women who are furious with Obama might remember that there was a time when they were equally mad at George W. Bush and the GOP. Jimi James, a 77-year-old retired schoolteacher, nodded approvingly for most of Fiorina's talk. But afterward she said that, mad as she was at Obama, she couldn't vote for McCain. "He seems like a decent man," she said. "But at the end of the day, you can't trust the right wing."