"Step into my palatial office," says Carly Fiorina. She's kidding. The once-mighty C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard, the one who was always being named the most powerful woman in business, now inhabits a dim, spartan office at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, a few blocks from the Capitol, with furniture that looks as though it came from the Nixon administration. "The hooks are nice," she jokes, pointing at the ones protruding from the bare walls.
Some three and a half years after she was ousted from H.P., Fiorina has a new title that's grand, even if her office is not. She's the victory chair of the Republican National Committee, nomenclature that looks good on the TV screen. Basically it means she's a roving ambassador for the G.O.P. and John McCain's presidential campaign. She's not a major player in fundraising or strategy, but her unpaid job has made her one of the most visible faces of the Republican Party this election year. She appears on TV about six times a week (you may have seen her on everything from ABC's This Week to Fox Business Network, where she was a contributor until the R.N.C. gig started in March, forcing her to resign) and grants interviews all over cyberspace, to everyone from HispanicBusiness.com to Gristmill, an environmental blog. She's not a close McCain buddy like, say, Republican South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, but she traveled with the presidential candidate on his poverty tour earlier this year and has been by his side at numerous press conferences. She's also advising McCain on tech and economic issues (though clearly that's a secondary role) and she's even been mentioned as a possible running mate-talk she discourages but doesn't dismiss, even if the chances of it actually happening are probably far-fetched. Still, there's no doubt that if McCain wins, she's going to have a big job.
It's all part of the comeback Fiorina has been trying to orchestrate since she was pushed out of H.P. After her tumultuous tenure, she left the company as damaged goods, but one thing was always clear: She was superb at marketing-especially at marketing herself. She put herself in a company TV ad and appeared on numerous magazine covers, garnering many flattering profiles while her company was flailing. (During her five and a half years at H.P., she was on the cover of Forbes, Fortune, or BusinessWeek at least 10 times.) Now she's taking those same skills and using them, to McCain's advantage, to make the Republican Party palatable outside the grumpy-white-male demographic, which happens to be precisely what the G.O.P. needs. "We had her do a video the first day she got the job," says Frank Donatelli, a veteran Republican operative and the R.N.C.'s deputy chairman. "She nailed it on the first take."
Reviving the ailing brand of the Republican Party is no easy task with a faltering Republican president in the White House. But Fiorina is frank-strikingly frank-about the need to do so: "In the case of John McCain, we have a strong brand, and we need to get his message out," she says. "With the Republican Party, we need to reach out, which is more difficult when we have a president with popularity ratings that are very, very low."
Fiorina's relationship with McCain goes back to 2000, when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and she was running H.P. and lobbying to keep internet purchases free of sales tax. McCain agreed; the two clicked. She wasn't active in his presidential campaign that year-but in 2007 she signed on, big-time.
A lifelong Republican who didn't talk much about politics during her business career, Fiorina is classically conservative, which makes her a good fit for McCain, who needs to bring large numbers of core Republican voters to the polls in order to win. She's against abortion rights (though, like McCain, she does support stem-cell research). She's opposes gun control, she's a free-trader, and she's a tax cutter: "It's the only way to spur in-no-va-tion," she says, rolling out each syllable.
But she isn't robotically party-line. When I ask her what she thinks of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign-and whether the Democratic New York senator faced sexism on the campaign trail-her response is clear. "Yes. I think women in positions of power are treated differently, and the treatment of her demonstrates that," she replies. "I have a lot of sympathy for what she's gone through. A lot of women recognize she's been treated differently, whether they're Democrats or Republicans."
Fiorina, the daughter of a law professor and a homemaker, dropped out of law school and went to business school at the University of Maryland. She then joined AT&T. She navigated her way past various empire builders and petty tyrants in the years before and after the 1984 breakup of Ma Bell. She met her second husband, Frank Fiorina, on the job (her first marriage ended in divorce) and eventually became head of a joint venture between Philips and AT&T spinoff Lucent Technologies. From this modest perch, she was plucked to become the C.E.O. of H.P.
Her record at the company was, according to Michael S. Malone, the biographer of H.P.'s founders, "a catastrophe." The stock price dropped about 50 percent during her tenure. In 2005, the board unceremoniously dumped her. Fiorina says it was because she was an agent of change who was shaking up the gray lady of Silicon Valley, as H.P. was known; the board said that she refused to delegate authority and made boneheaded moves. H.P.'s stock soared the day she left.
Her flameout has naturally made good fodder for Democrats, who have put together a position paper ridiculing her record and calling attention to the fat severance package she received from H.P.? "The decision to entrust Carly Fiorina as an economic adviser tells you everything you need to know about just how little John McCain cares about protecting American jobs," says Karen Finney, the Democratic National Committee's communications director. Personally, I don't think that's fair. Fiorina's record at H.P., while mixed, looks better in retrospect. The merger she orchestrated with Compaq, the subject of a fight among shareholders, did not prove to be H.P.'s death knell, as many had predicted. And her much-praised successor, Mark Hurd, has continued her acquisition strategy, most notably by making a run at Electronic Data Systems in May.
Fiorina won't say whether she's plotting a future in politics, and I'd be shocked if McCain tapped her for veep. It would undercut any argument he might make that his ticket is more experienced than Barack Obama's. But secretary of commerce? Sure. She'd be a pretty great promoter of American business. Even Tom Perkins, the venture capitalist who tangled with her when he was on the H.P. board, has said that he'd help her run for office.
And she does learn. Fiorina has kept a hand in business, serving on corporate boards, including that of Steve Case's Revolution Health, a company trying to bring internet savvy to the antediluvian world of medical records. Case, the founder of AOL and former chairman of AOL Time Warner, is a Fiorina fan and says that she kept him focused on his customers. "We had some other opportunities along the way, but Carly was always an advocate for putting the consumer first, and she was right," he says. She also wrote a self-justifying but still fascinating book about her career-without the aid of a ghostwriter. Her corporate record doesn't match those of the other famous current and former C.E.O.'s backing McCain-eBay's Meg Whitman, Merrill Lynch's John Thain, Cisco Systems' John Chambers, and now Bain Capital's Mitt Romney. But no one in Washington is laughing at her, and no one thinks she'll be in that small office for long.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.