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Carly Fiorina thinks the best way for Republicans to beat the gender card is to play it

Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

The only woman in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination has broken glass ceilings–but also left a mess in her wake.

Carly Fiorina announced her candidacy today (May 4), and led with her understanding of the economy and technology (although the former Hewlett-Packard CEO is also known as a staunch social conservative who opposes abortion rights and gay marriage). She also made the case that she’s the only potential Republican nominee who can take the gender card off the table in a general election against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Fiorina’s career in business typifies the promise and peril of her candidacy: Fiorina rose through the ranks at AT&T and Lucent for 19 years before becoming the top executive at Hewlett-Packard, which made her the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. But her career was undone by a wrong-way bet on a rival computer-maker. She pursued HP’s merger with Compaq despite reservations from the company’s board; when the stock cratered, she lost their trust, was excoriated in the press, and was forced to resign (paywall) after just five years on the job.

After leaving the business world, Fiorina flirted with politics, volunteering on Arizona Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and was rumored to be a potential vice-presidential pick. (That slot on the ticket went to then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.)

A 2010 run for Senate in California is Fiorina’s only previous attempt to seek public office. She was defeated by incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer. Perhaps the strangest political legacy of that race was an infamously strange advertisement, aimed at a GOP rival, featuring ”the demon sheep.” But it’s not the only legacy. During the campaign, Fiorina backed policies to legalize child immigrants brought to the US without authorization. The stance is a political must-have in California and doubly so in Silicon Valley, where companies seeking access to skilled foreign workers have made common-cause with immigration reformers. But nationally, conservatives tend to oppose such legalization.

Fiorina’s fealty to business also may affect her relationship with Republican voters, many of whom have become skeptical of the priorities supported by big corporations.

There is appeal, of course, in the idea of a Republican woman challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who still appears to hold a largely uncontested path to the presidential nomination on the Democrats’ side. In the past, Fiorina has praised Clinton, but today she began building the case against her, saying “she clearly is not trustworthy.”

According to CNN, she told reporters at a breakfast today that if Clinton faced a female challenger in the general election, “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.”

Political observers don’t expect much success from Fiorina’s campaign, saying she lacks the public profile and experience to pose a threat to putative front-runners like former governors Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. (Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon turned conservative commentator, might not fare much better in this regard.) But as the lone woman in the field, she’ll likely obtain a lot more recognition. And with so many elected politicians trying to campaign as political outsiders, maybe a real outsider does have a chance.