SAN JOSE, Calif. - Over iced tea and finger snacks in a New York suburb, Carly Fiorina - once the nation's most powerful female business leader - launched into her latest gig, wooing Hillary Clinton supporters to vote for John McCain.
At the meeting two weeks ago, the disgruntled Clinton women hinted at supporting the presumptive GOP nominee. Fiorina passionately promoted McCain, and promised answers about whether he could support paid maternity leave and equal pay for women. And when it was time to shake hands with former Wall Street executive Amy Siskin, Fiorina instead offered her cheek for a sisterly kiss. Thought Siskin: This woman has my number.
Vintage Fiorina, say observers, a master showwoman in a tough crowd. Politics, they add, may be her true calling.
"She rose to power at HP on politics,'' said Rob Enderle, a veteran Silicon Valley technology industry analyst. "She is someone who wants to be a power unto herself and own her own image.''
Just as she crossed the country six years ago as Hewlett-Packard CEO, doggedly soliciting support from skeptical investors to seal her signature deal, the $19 billion purchase of Compaq Computer, she now stumps from town-to-city, Michigan-to-Tennessee, selling John McCain. And, along with him, a big dose of herself.
After the board sent her packing in 2005 partly because of her hard-charging personality, Fiorina went on to write a book and join the speaking circuit, earning more than $50,000 an appearance. Last year, she had a short-lived stint providing commentary for Fox's Business Network, but she chucked that to take on politics full time in March.
The valley's most famous ex-female tech leader has found another branch on her road to rehabilitation, this time in the biggest pressure cooker of them all, the presidential campaign trail.
What McCain gets with Fiorina, 53, is a bold businesswoman who lights up in front of crowds and cameras at a time when voters are concerned about the economy and fascinated by candidates poised to break gender and racial barriers.
What Fiorina gets with McCain is a rare chance to quickly sculpt her political profile and create buzz as she searches for her next big thing.
Which begs the question: What does Carly Fiorina want?
Fiorina, who lives in Los Altos Hills, Calif., leaped from the much smaller Lucent Technologies to run HP as the company was sliding into the abyss in the late 1990s. Her political trajectory has an even greater G-force.
Fiorina joined up with McCain about 18 months ago, after studiously avoiding campaign politics - making just two political contributions to federal candidates, Bush and McCain, before 2007. Yet, by spring she was being mentioned as a possible McCain vice president.
It's a testament to her talent, her knack for self-promotion and her great timing, say those who are watching her. Few believe McCain would pick someone with no political experience to serve as VP, and now Commerce secretary seems more likely if McCain wins. If not, she could run for elected office in California.
But the HP executive who once pushed employees to embrace change over abundant caution - inventing the phrase "perfect enough'' - is finding her aggressive style a sometimes hard fit on the campaign trail when she's supposed to be playing a supporting role.
In her biggest gaffe to date, she left McCain literally speechless in front of reporters on his Straight Talk Express.
With video rolling, McCain hemmed and hawed before - in his own words - "ducking'' the question of whether birth control pills should be covered by insurers as Viagra is. He had voted against covering pills.
The subject only popped up because Fiorina had suggested insurers were sexually biased, and she said it in front of dozens of reporters. Now, Planned Parenthood is running ads highlighting the unflattering McCain video.
Fiorina declined to be interviewed for this story. Frank Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, who works closely with Fiorina, gives her high marks, especially for a newcomer.
He dismisses her slip-ups as minor, and part of daily campaign life. "Given she's on TV virtually every day, she's done remarkably well for someone new to politics. I can't think of a Phil Gramm moment for her.'' The former Texas senator embar rassed the campaign by suggesting Americans are "whiners'' experiencing a "mental recession.''
Donatelli said Fiorina's in such "demand among the Republican party faithful'' she cannot accept most of the invitations she receives to speak. Fiorina is slated to play a highly visible role at the GOP convention later this summer.
In fact, Democrats privately worry that she may gain traction with disgruntled Clinton backers, both women and working-class voters. So they have been scouring her record at HP. They highlight her cuts of 18,000 jobs as she made the case to move work overseas and her $42 million severance package. McCain has railed against excessive corporate compensation.
Some Republicans and pundits are questioning her substance.
"She's a blank slate,'' said Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for the Club for Growth, which advocates for limited government. "People with business backgrounds a lot of time have faulty ideas when it comes to economic growth.''
Still, Soloveichik noted, "there are Republicans who are intrigued. With the economy such a big issue, she has a business background. And they see the female Republican bench isn't that deep, so people tend to latch on to whatever Republican female comes along with potential for public office.''
Critics of her HP tenure see some of the brash Fiorina - the one deposed for inflexibility and powerlust - on the campaign trail.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean of executive programs at the Yale School of Management, who has long criticized Fiorina's corporate skills, bluntly said, "Cult of personality, coercion and bullying tactics, that's not how you win over a constituency in a campaign.''
That's also been noted by some in Silicon Valley.
Her strident partisanship is changing the unwritten rules of the game played among valley leaders who generally stick together on technology issues. When siding with opposing candidates, they rarely lob bombshells at the other camp. It keeps relations friendly with whichever administration is in power.
With no business constituency to fret about, Fiorina regularly criticizes presumptive Democratic nominee Obama.
"It does hurt the valley when the highest profile, most senior participant in presidential politics, has gone down the political hack path,'' said Wade Randlett, an Obama backer who has advised valley leaders on political involvement.
But Grover Norquist, head of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, who hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with McCain, says Fiorina is the perfect political complement to McCain.
"At a time when it's same-old, same-old in Washington,'' he said, "she is something different.''
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