Carly Fiorina is about to go from debate darling to political bull’s-eye

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·Senior National Affairs Reporter
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Carly Fiorina walks onstage at the 2016 Republican debate Wednesday. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Carly Fiorina took a big victory lap after her stunning debate performance Wednesday. In TV appearances Thursday morning, she said she was “very satisfied” with her performance and was “gratified” by all the positive attention.

But the honeymoon is sure to be short, especially if she spikes in the polls as expected, threatening other candidates. Fiorina’s Republican rivals — most of whom have been complimentary of her, with the exception of Donald Trump — are no doubt digging for oppo on the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and formulating plans of attack.

Luckily, Democrats have already done their work for them. When Fiorina ran against California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010 — her first ever foray into politics — Boxer’s team looked long and hard for an angle of attack that would work against the surprisingly strong candidate.

Rose Kapolczynski, a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Boxer’s campaign, remembers the very first event Fiorina held as a candidate. Instead of standing awkwardly behind a lectern reading notes, the political novice had on a wireless mic and confidently moved around, greeting voters, as if she were Steve Jobs introducing a new product.

“She was completely at ease in her first moment in the U.S. senate campaign,” Kapolczynski recalls.

And voters noticed. Fiorina surged in the polls, threatening Boxer in the solidly blue state of California.

But then the Boxer campaign hit upon a line of attack that proved potent, one that Fiorina never recovered from. They released an ad that said Fiorina had laid off 30,000 workers during her shaky five-year tenure as head of HP while “tripling” her own salary. Kapolczynski said they knew they had to find audio of Fiorina talking about the layoffs, because she was such a likable and attractive candidate that they didn’t think voters would believe the ad otherwise.

In the ad, audio of Fiorina plays in which she talks about “mass layoffs … which we did” and explaining that “perhaps the work needs to be done somewhere else.”

“Once people learned that, they turned against her and it was over,” Kapolczynski said. “Those same vulnerabilities about her record exist today.”

Fiorina tried to defend herself, arguing that though she laid off 30,000 workers, HP doubled in size over the entire time of her tenure. But that figure counts thousands of employees acquired through acquisitions, as well as HP employees in other countries, so the layoffs of American workers remain an issue. Fiorina also argues that she doubled the company’s revenues through the 2002 merger with Compaq, which is true, but the company’s net earnings fell and history has judged the merger unkindly. PolitiFact rated Boxer’s ad “mostly true.”

Layoffs and outsourcing appear to be a more effective line of attack than simply arguing that she was a failed CEO who was “viciously fired” after HP’s stock tanked by 50 percent, as Donald Trump has done.

In Wednesday’s debate, Fiorina did not significantly alter her response to the HP attack from 2010, when asked about her tenure by moderator Jake Tapper. She said she ran the company during a difficult time and had to make “hard choices,” but that ultimately the company’s current strong performance is due to her leadership. She also again made the argument that, overall, HP added jobs.

Fiorina spokeswoman Anna Epstein points out that a former HP board member who helped oust Fiorina recently bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to announce that he was wrong. “Yep, we’re ready,” Epstein said of the attacks.

Still, the layoffs story line may open Fiorina to charges that she is out of touch with regular Americans and heartless. This type of messaging dogged Mitt Romney in 2012.

Marty Wilson, who ran Fiorina’s campaign in 2010, points out that unlike Romney, Fiorina has the benefit of an up-by-the-bootstraps professional story that might help fend off the layoffs story line. Fiorina, the daughter of a federal judge and an artist, started out doing secretarial work before dedicating herself to marketing and sales at AT&T and Lucent Technologies and working her way up the corporate ladder.

“The secretary to CEO stuff, that’s not baloney. She really did begin her career typing,” Wilson said of Fiorina, who graduated with a Medieval history degree from Stanford.

Wilson also pointed out that an attack that works on California voters is not necessarily the same attack that would work in a GOP primary.

“Those charges drew blood in the 2010 general election in a deep blue state in California, but I don’t think they have the same salience in a multicandidate primary,” Wilson said. But it does raise the possibility that she could be vulnerable to these kinds of attacks in the general election, especially in a national climate fueled by populist anger over income inequality.

Still, the layoffs story follows Fiorina, in ways small and large. The website, for example, was apparently registered by a Fiorina enemy instead of her campaign. It displays 30,000 frowny face emoticons, each one representing an employee she laid off.

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