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Carly Fiorina rises up toward Republicans’ glass ceiling after strong debate showing

Carly Fiorina

(The Washington Times) – For years, a question lingering over the Republican Party has been whether it was ready for a woman to lead the ticket in a presidential election. Now some are wondering whether Carly Fiorina could be the one to punch through the glass ceiling — possibly setting up an all-female race against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Last week’s kickoff Republican presidential debates have only fueled the conversation, with the former Hewlett-Packard CEO earning rave reviews despite appearing in the earlier “kiddie’s table” debate rather than the prime-time affair.

“The incredible thing about Carly Fiorina is just how smart, how confident and poised she came across [in the debate], and I can assure you that a lot of people are thinking about who is the best one to take on Hillary,” said former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Colorado. “She has called out Hillary. She is very courageous, and there is just something about a woman running againstHillary.”

Indeed, Ms. Fiorina has targeted Mrs. Clinton for months, arguing that as a successful business executive and a woman, she is uniquely qualified to take on the former first lady. She deployed some of those attacks in last week’s debate, delighting base voters and tamping down early speculation that she was angling for a lower position such as vice president or a Cabinet slot.

“She is the dark horse to watch,” said Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self-Governance and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, who said being the sole female candidate in a field of 17 helps Ms. Fiorina stand out.

Pollsters say Ms. Fiorina got the biggest jump from last week’s debates. Every major survey, nationally and in key early states, showed positive movement.

Before the debate, an average of polls put Ms. Fiorina 11th in the crucial first nominating contest state of Iowa, but two polls taken in the past few days vaulted her as high as fourth.

Ms. Fiorina’s allies are using her widely praised performance — and her status as the only woman in the field — to their advantage.

The Carly for America super PAC has repeatedly sent out a photo of the main debate stage, lined with 10 men, with the caption “What’s wrong with this picture?”

The coy answer is that “the only CEO of a Fortune 20 company and the candidate with the best plan for our country’s future is missing.” The missive goes on to talk about being ignored by “all the guys from Washington.”

Performance vs. plumbing

Tamara Scott, a member of the Republican National Committee from Iowa, said the party is ready to have a woman as its standard-bearer, but the choice must be based on merit, not gender.

“Whether or not Carly Fiorina gets the bid will be up to the grass roots of the Republican Party and her ability to persuade them she has the best potential in dealing with the problems facing our nation,” Ms. Scott said. “I’d like to think our nation will select the next U.S. president on principle, performance and proven leadership, but not by one’s plumbing.”

Mr. Meckler said that is how voters with whom he talks are approachingMs. Fiorina’s candidacy.

“I have never heard a single negative peep from the grass roots or political operatives about her gender,” he said. “The only time her gender is mentioned is that her gender will be a positive.”

Ms. Musgrave, who works for the Susan B. Anthony List, said she is impressed with the Republican presidential field and that the political environment is ripe for a pro-life candidate like Ms. Fiorina.

“We think a woman speaking out on the issue of life is the very best way to be convincing and to counter a pro-choice candidate like Hillary Clinton,” she said.

Republicans have struggled to win over female voters in recent elections. Exit polls from 2012 showed that women, who made up more than half of voters, supported President Obama by 55 percent to 44 percent for Mitt Romney.

In its postmortem election report, the Republican Party concluded that it needed to connect better with women. The Republican challenger won the male vote by 8 percentage points but lost decisively in the popular and Electoral College votes.

“Female candidates are far better at connecting with these voters because they are more likely to understand them,” the report said.

But previous female candidates for the Republican nomination haven’t lasted long on the campaign trail.

Elizabeth Dole, who served in the Cabinets of President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, pulled out of the race before the first nominating contest in 2000, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who briefly topped the early polls, withdrew after a disastrous result in the Iowa caucuses in 2012.

Ms. Fiorina arguably faces steeper odds in this cycle given the size and strength of the Republican field, which is filled with candidates with the elected experience that she lacks. She lost her 2010 bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, in her only race for elected office.

The 60-year-old corporate executive casts herself as a Washington outsider and argues that her business acumen is what is needed to solve big problems.

“We have arrived at a point in our nation’s history where the potential of this nation and too many Americans is being crushed by the weight, the power, the cost, the complexity, the ineptitude, the corruption of the federal government, and only someone who will challenge the status quo of Washington, D.C., can lead the resurgence of this great nation,” she said in the debate.

With more attention and better numbers, however, have come more scrutiny of Ms. Fiorina’s record.

Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of the Conservative Review, suggested this week that Ms. Fiorina’s previous remarks in support of raising the nation’s debt ceiling, the 2008 bailout of Wall Street and an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants show she isn’t the conservative champion that many grass-roots voters want.

“These are not abstract issues and questions,” Mr. Horowitz wrote. “These are the very issues that will confront the next president and will be raised by the Democrats in the general election. How will Republicans throw every single punch, especially the sharp right hooks, if they nominate someone with a serious handicap on an array of issues?”

He added, “Hillary can eat her alive.”

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