Republican primary voters in South Carolina are introducing themselves to a candidate who only a month ago, couldn’t talk her way onto the main stage at the first GOP debate.
Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of IT firm Hewlett-Packard, fell outside the top 10 of a crowded GOP field and was relegated to what some pundits dismissed as the “kids table” debate of also-rans. But Fiorina attracted enough attention in that early-evening broadcast on Fox News in August to move up into the main debate on CNN last week, where she attracted even more attention to herself by hitting back at GOP frontrunner Donald Trump for a comment he made about whether anyone would want to vote for “that face.”
“I think women all over this country heard really clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina told the debate audience, to sustained applause.
After the Sept. 16 debate, the candidate’s previously scheduled appearance in Rock Hill moved from the Magnolia Room at Laurel Creek into a larger venue at Winthrop University’s McBryde Hall – and that venue quickly sold out after an online ticket giveaway reached the hall’s 750-person capacity.
On Wednesday, voters got a chance to ask Fiorina directly about her ideas for the country. Fiorina spoke for about 20 minutes, then turned most of the evening over to answering questions from the audience, first-come, first-serve. That approach didn’t surprise supporter Dave McDonald.
“With her experience in the business world, it doesn’t phase her,” McDonald said. “She’s not thrown off by the questions.”
Fiorina’s stop in Rock Hill is the latest in a week-long swing through the Palmetto State, during which she stopped off in Columbia to officially file for the GOP’s first-in-the-South primary next Feb. 20.
Before her rise in the polls over the past month, Fiorina was best known for her time running Hewlett-Packard. In 1998, she was named “the most powerful woman in American business” by Fortune magazine, but her tenure with the company also included the layoff of 30,000 employees and being unceremoniously fired after stock prices plummeted.
Born in Austin, Texas, in 1954, Fiorina attended law school at UCLA, but ultimately dropped out to become an AT&T sales rep, then climbed the corporate ladder to be named head of HP in 1999.
In 2010, she attempted to parlay her business record into a bid for California’s Senate seat, which she lost in a strong year for Republicans by 10 percentage points to the Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer.
Fiorina has never held public office before, but she has caught fire in a year when voters appear to favor outsiders over long-time office-holders and establishment insiders.
She’s attempted to burnish her outsider image by demonstrating a detailed knowledge of foreign affairs, in contrast to the often broadly audacious but detail-free pronouncements from Trump.
“I know more world leaders than anybody in the field, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina said of her main Democratic opponent. “But I was not there for photo ops. I sat down with them for meetings and negotiated.”
Fiorina told the Winthrop crowd her first two phone calls from the Oval Office would be to two foreign leaders on opposite sides of one of the most contentious issues in U.S. foreign policy. First, she would call her “friend” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say, “the United States will stand with Israel always.”
The second call, to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be much shorter: “New deal.”
She would demand Iran tear up the nuclear agreement negotiated with the Obama administration and five other world powers and instead pursue much more aggressive, unilateral inspections of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
If Khamenei doesn’t agree, “I will make it as difficult as possible for Iran to move money through the international banking system. And we can do that on our own.”
Much of Fiorina’s address focused on calls to, borrowing a phrase from her competitor Trump, “Make America Great Again.” Or as Fiorina put it quoting Margaret Thatcher, “I am not content to manage the decline of a great nation.”
To do that, she puts a lot of emphasis on breaking down bureaucracy. As thousands of baby boomers prepare to retire from federal jobs in the next few years, Fiorina said as president she would “not replace a single one of them.”
Her response to a question about cutting the debt was to say “grow the economy and cut spending,” then repeat it three times like a mantra.
Fiorina expounded a little more on immigration reform, where she called for a mandatory, nationwide employee verification system for immigration status, “and employers who violate it must be punished.” And in another swipe at Trump, she rejected the real-estate tycoon’s claim that he brought immigration to the forefront of the campaign.
“We’ve been talking about this for 25 years,” she said. “But all we’ve been doing is talking.”
Like most Republicans, she’s for repealing the Affordable Care Act, but as a cancer survivor, she said she appreciates the dangers of high hospital bills. She wants the free market to inject “real competition” into America’s health care system, but also the federal government should mandate that health providers’ costs, prices and outcomes be publicly available, while states should manage “high-risk” insurance pools for those at the highest risk of health problems.
Despite Fiorina’s rise since the debate, Chuck Panoff and Cynthia Rudolph of Indian Land said they were excited to see her speak even before her performance there.
“She’s concise, she knows her facts,” Rudolph said. “You can ask her anything, and the difference with Trump is that she can answer with some substance.”
Panoff said he likes Trump’s history of “getting things done,” but said any outsider would be better able to get things done in Washington, because “the country is fed up.”
Fiorina’s history in the boardroom may make that easier to accomplish, Rudolph believes.
“I think we need a leader who can bring us together for a conversation and move things forward,” she said.