Carly Fiorina argues that what sets her apart from incumbent Barbara Boxer is her range of life experience -- from a law-school dropout to the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company. But critics say Fiorina neglects to mention that she was fired from Hewlett-Packard.
It's tough enough to be an incumbent in this year's political climate, but California's third-term U.S. senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, has a challenger unlike any she's ever faced.
Her Republican opponent is Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who is making her first run for elective office. Fiorina maintains that her business background is just what's needed to bring some economic savvy to Washington.
But Fiorina's critics say her performance at Hewlett-Packard was anything but a selling point.
At a recent rooftop conference in Beverly Hills, Fiorina greeted about 30 women who were there to show support and ask questions.
Still very much the executive, Fiorina sat at the head of the table, glamorous in a designer suit, sporting the short, steely hair that's become her trademark since she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. Behind her were two giant posters blasting Barbara Boxer for "failed leadership."
"When you have people like Barbara Boxer in Washington, D.C., for 28 years, who thinks that all answers are there -- how can they possibly know what is going on?" Fiorina asks the crowd.
Fiorina says she knows what's going on because of her life experience -- not just as the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company, but as a young law-school dropout trying to figure out what to do with her life.
"I started out typing and filing and answering the phones for a little nine-person firm. And that nine-person firm gave me my chance to find my own way," she says.
After the event, Fiorina says it's her private-sector experience, whether in the typing pool or the corner office, that makes her especially suited for the Senate.
"I think it would help tremendously to have a senator that knows where jobs come from, that knows how to create them, that knows how to bring them back and, importantly, knows what it means to manage billions of dollars worth of expenses and cut billions of dollars worth of expenses," she says.
But Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the School of Management at Yale University, says Fiorina neglects to mention that she was fired by Hewlett-Packard.
"What the devil is she talking about as a virtue in her business leadership?" he says. "She sliced shareholder wealth in half, massive job loss. . . . Gosh it's hard to see what's the selling feature in her real-world grounding."
Sonnenfeld has written a book about how failed CEOs re-invent themselves. The first thing most have done is admit their mistakes -- and Fiorina's never done that, he says.
"She scapegoated her management, she scapegoated her board, she had complaints about everybody, and it was never her fault," he says.
Voters Watch For Repeat Incidents
Whatever pressure Fiorina faced at Hewlett-Packard, running for public office can be much tougher, says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
"You don't really have day-to-day opposition researchers -- or trackers -- in the corporate world the way that you do in the political world," Pitney says.
And, when it comes to that, nothing seems to be off limits. Like the widely viewed remark about Boxer's appearance that Fiorina made while waiting for a TV interview to begin.
"God, what is that hair?" she said with a laugh. "So yesterday."
Pitney says the incident by itself wasn't "all that serious."
"The thing that Fiorina has to watch for is a repeat of the incident. If people start seeing that this is a pattern, that she makes careless statements over time . . . ," he says.
In fact, Fiorina famously made some careless statements during her first foray into politics -- as a surrogate spokesperson for Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. But the Boxer campaign isn't waiting around for Fiorina to stumble, says Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski.
"Carly Fiorina has said she's happy to run on her record at Hewlett Packard, and we're taking her up on that," Kapolczynski says.
So Boxer's campaign manager says you can expect to hear the senator talking about Fiorina doing such things as "laying off workers, shipping jobs overseas, while taking extravagant salary and perks for herself."
And then there are the issues. Fiorina and Boxer disagree on just about all of them: health care, the environment -- you name it. Fiorina is also opposed to abortion rights, while Boxer is a strong supporter. And that's a position that has stood Boxer in good stead in past elections in this left-leaning state, says Kapolczynski.
"It's been more than three decades since California elected an anti-choice senator and I don't think it's going to happen again this year," she says.
One factor that won't be an issue in this race is that neither candidate will be able to seek support -- or be dismissed -- just because she's a woman. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.