Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard, photographed in September in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

By Philip Rucker and Matea Gold
November 25, 2014 at 9:45 PM

On a Republican presidential debate stage expected to be filled with more than a dozen current and former politicians, Carly Fiorina envisions herself standing out — as the only woman and the only CEO.

Sensing an opportunity in a crowded field that lacks a front-runner, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive is actively exploring a 2016 presidential run. Fiorina has been talking privately with potential donors, recruiting campaign staffers, courting grass-roots activists in early caucus and primary states and planning trips to Iowa and New Hampshire starting next week.

Fiorina, whose rise from secretary to Silicon Valley corporate chief during the dot-com boom brought her national attention, has refashioned herself as a hard-charging partisan hoping to strike a sharp contrast with the sea of suited men seeking the GOP nomination.

But Fiorina, 60, has considerable challenges, chiefly that she has sought but never held public office. Lingering disarray from her last campaign could also haunt her next one, undercutting her image as an effective manager. Fiorina still owes nearly $500,000 to consultants and staffers from her failed 2010 Senate bid in California — debts that have left some former associates bitter.

Privately, several prominent Republicans spoke about Fiorina with disdain, saying she has an elevated assessment of her political talents and questioning her qualifications to be commander in chief.

But allies defended Fiorina’s credentials, saying she would make a strong contender.

“She’s very articulate, she’s very thoughtful and has a very positive message,” said David Carney, who has been a top strategist for past GOP presidential candidates and whose wife worked with Fiorina this year in New Hampshire. “She’s got just as much of a record of accomplishment and a story and ideas as anybody else who’s running.”

Carney drew a comparison between Fiorina, a free-market advocate, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a populist firebrand: “She’s sort of the antidote to the Elizabeth Warren arguments from the left.”

In June, Fiorina started the Unlocking Potential PAC with a mission of galvanizing female voters and beefing up the GOP’s ground game. The super PAC made modest investments in four Senate races while funding Fiorina’s travel to presidential battlegrounds such as Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. “She left people wanting more,” said Angie Hughes, the group’s Iowa director. “We did a lot of things that would be helpful to anyone wanting to run for president.”

This month, Fiorina sent handwritten notes to some Iowa activists thanking them for their help with her super PAC and looking forward to “the next phase.”

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