Carly Fiorina didn’t balk at the decision by Fox News to include only the top 10 contenders in the five most recent national polls as contestants in the first Republican presidential primary debate.
Her response distinguished her from some of her more irksome male colleagues who were quick to call the qualifying criteria “arbitrary” and unfair, even though the odds were high that she would be relegated to a less-publicized pre-debate forum.
And when the announcement came that she was not among the candidates who would rumble on the main stage in Cleveland, Fiorina took it in stride, acknowledging that her political “outsider” status means her work is cut out for her.
“About 40 percent of Republicans have heard my name. In other words, a vast majority of Republican voters, never mind Americans, still don’t know who I am,” she told the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday.
“It’s a long race. And I’ll look forward to the ‘happy hour’ debate.”
You might even say she took the setback “like a man.”
But as the only female GOP candidate — a fact the only female contender on the Democratic side conveniently forgot during a recent speech — Fiorina is a tremendous asset to the field, and not simply because she is a woman.
Unlike many of her primary opponents who are easily distracted by and eager to react to commentaries from fellow contenders on their own side of the aisle, Fiorina has exhibited a laserlike focus on the person she would almost certainly face next November were she to win her party’s nomination.
That may be because as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard — and the first woman to lead one of the nation’s top 20 companies — Fiorina learned to keep her eye on the bottom line. In this case, that line would be the defeat of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Or it may be because she takes a bit more seriously what Ronald Reagan called the “11th Commandment,” which is “Thou shall not speak ill of other Republicans.” For a political outsider, she seems savvy enough to understand that distinguishing herself in the primaries needn’t come at the expense of tearing down a colleague — particularly if such criticisms risk making her target vulnerable in the general election.
It’s just as likely her political strategy is an outgrowth of her personality: fierce, focused and unflappable.
Being the only the woman in the GOP race does have its obstacles.
It’s almost inevitable that Fiorina will be subjected to those token and often inane “lady questions.”
In a June commentary on Medium, she describes a recent encounter with a reporter who “said he’d never talked to a presidential candidate with pink nail polish. Another reporter asked me if I thought hormones would prevent a woman from serving in the Oval Office.”
And during a candidate forum in New Hampshire last week, Fiorina was presented with one of those personal, “self-assessment” questions infrequently asked of her male counterparts.
But she was also asked about Planned Parenthood, and, as a female Republican candidate, Fiorina’s voice on such issues is more than just a punch line.
Whereas remarks by male candidates on topics such as “women’s health” — an issue Clinton has claimed as her own — however principled, tend to ring hollow, Fiorina provides a credible alternative to the notion that Clinton represents all women.
Reverting to tiresome “war on women” rhetoric, Clinton is signaling she’ll make gender one of her main weapons in the general election.
But it’s a less potent weapon if she faces another woman on the ballot.
“I think that if Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” Fiorina told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
“She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.”
Instead, Clinton would have to run on “her track record, her accomplishments, her candor and trustworthiness and her policies.”
Just like Fiorina is doing.
Fiorina’s immediate challenge is getting more primary voters to give her a serious look. If she can do that, at the next debate look for her on the main stage with the guys — where she will prove she’s more than just the other woman running for president.
Cynthia M. Allen is at firstname.lastname@example.org.