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The Anti-Hillary

Is Carly Fiorina uniquely positioned to neutralize Clinton's strengths?

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

In the last two election cycles, whenever Democrats accused Republicans of waging a "war on women," the GOP often cried foul. After the 2012 election, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus said the party would need to transform but not by “resorting to the cynical, divisive identity politics of the Democratic Party; it means embracing our common identity as freedom-loving Americans.” Freshman Utah congresswoman Mia Love echoed this at a conservative conference in February, saying that the war on women "comes from the idea that they’d like to separate us based on social status, gender, race, income levels.” Hillary Clinton’s one-time opponent Rick Lazio, who lost the 2000 New York Senate race largely due to bad optics, warned in March that Clinton will try to “connect with women who have faced sexism … it will resonate. This is going to be one of the tactics to put the Republican on defense."

Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard executive who is expected to announce her candidacy for president on Monday, is not running away from or criticizing that political strategy. Instead she presents herself—the only female Republican candidate—as the ideal weapon to fight it. Her well-honed pitch to Republicans queasy about identity politics is that the best strategy to neutralize these attacks is to share the same identity as your attacker.

“If Hillary Clinton were to face a [Republican] female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” Fiorina said last month. “She won’t be able to play the gender card.”

In a party with no shortage of Clinton critics, Fiorina has been especially vicious. On Clinton’s foreign policy experience: "Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.” On diplomacy: “She may like hashtags but she doesn’t know what leadership means.” On Clinton’s private emails scandal: “Hillary, news flash: I have four accounts on my single device.” And on Clinton's gender: “I think if Hillary Clinton faces a woman opponent, she will get a hitch in her swing.”

Except for Ben Carson, who launches his campaign Monday as well, Fiorina might be the biggest long-shot for the Republican nomination, polling at less than 1 percent of Iowa Republicans. Nonetheless, she’s received outsized attention for being the ultimate outsider in a crowded Republican field.

Her barbs have gained Fiorina admirers on the right.

“[S]he is a different kind of woman candidate for Republicans,” the Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote. “She’s no Sarah Palin or former representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). She is poised, polished, sophisticated and knowledgeable about the world. Moreover, she is not a woman politician; she is an accomplished woman running for political office.”

“It will be good for Republicans to have Carly Fiorina in the race,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol tweeted.

Fiorina has completed the political speech circuit in prime-time slots at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Iowa Freedom Summit, and Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. Lately, she’s hit the campaign trail—including 13 stops in Iowa, where Fiorina couldn’t resist taking swipes at the Democratic front-runner in Clinton County. “West Des Moines, Marshalltown, Ames, Ottumwa and now, Dewitt. And I didn’t do it on a scooby van either,” she said, referencing Clinton’s adventures in Iowa the same week.

Many other factors distinguish Fiorina from most of the Republican field. Fiorina has never been elected to office, though not for lack of trying. She lost her challenge to incumbent California Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010 and served earlier as an adviser to John McCain's losing presidential campaign in 2008 . Her own career in politics began after she was fired after an embarrassing series of company leaks and poor company performance at HP, though she left with $21 million in her pocket. 

Fiorina particularly trumpets her position on social issues. She acknowledges the gender wage gap, but instead of suggesting policy solutions, she blames the gap on women leaving the workforce, bureaucracies, and unions. “Modern-day feminism has transformed itself from being a movement that sought to treat women as equals with men to an orthodoxy that seeks to portray all men as the enemy and women as the constant assistance of government,” Fiorina writes in her book Rising to the Challengeout Tuesday.

She also frequently stresses her opposition to abortion; she supports a federal bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of fertilization. Because of her gender, “She’s in the best position to force a two-way conversation on abortion,” said Republican strategist and pollster Kellyanne Conway, who’s conducted focus groups of independent women in swing states. 

Conway says that in her focus groups, voters never compare Fiorina to another socially conservative candidate who was once seen as a Washington outsider and inspired widespread praise from the right: Sarah Palin. But the praise for Fiorina is akin to the right’s (especially Kristol’s) embrace of Palin in the 2008 race, when the party expected Palin, as McCain’s vice-presidential pick, to propel the ticket into the White House. In Rising to the Challenge, Fiorina recalls Palin's appearance at the Republican National Convention: “She was an unknown quantity to me, but her candidacy added needed excitement and energy to the race.” That sounds a lot like Fiorina’s pitch for herself.

The parallels may not end there: Many expect Fiorina to be vying for the vice president nod or a cabinet spot. But Liz Mair, a Republican strategist and 2010 adviser to Fiorina, disagrees, calling her "one of the most effective communicators in the party. She also has the instincts and impulses of a real, high-quality leader, so she’ll want to show that off.” 

Asked who Fiorina’s base is, Mair says “she’s someone with surprisingly broad appeal, though she’s starting from a very tough position in 2016, relative to, say [Scott] Walker, [Marco] Rubio, [Jeb] Bush, etc.”

She's "just a lot smarter than most of these folks," Mair says. "She is also not a flip-flopper; she’s consistent, fearless and tough—which not all of the boys are."