SAN FRANCISCO — A self-described "change warrior," Carly Fiorina has been a law school dropout, a real estate broker, an English teacher, a telecommunications executive and the first woman to be hired, then fired, as chief executive of a Fortune 20 company.
The former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO is again forging new territory for herself, this time in the highest ranks of American politics. She has quickly emerged as a high-level advisor to Sen. John McCain's campaign in the Arizona Republican's bid for the White House.
Her rise has spurred speculation that Fiorina, famous for breaking glass ceilings, is auditioning for her next act -- political office -- after the biggest disappointment of her career.
Fiorina, 53, is doing yeoman's service for the campaign in exchange for the chance to refashion her image as a political contender. She takes part in daily strategy sessions, advises McCain on the economy and acts as his surrogate in battleground states and with women.
Not that she hasn't had her missteps.
Her poise and freshness have been offset at times by her inexperience and her contentious tenure at HP, during which she cut more than 20,000 jobs and the venerable technology company's stock fell by nearly half. Democrats say that Fiorina is a ripe target, viewed as an elitist who threw the company into turmoil before walking away with $21 million in severance and other payments.
On the campaign trail, a comment she made about insurers and Viagra created an embarrassing moment for McCain. In the following weeks, she showed her face less frequently in public but appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
Her rise in politics has marked quite a comeback. In 2005, Fiorina was dismissed by HP. Three years later, she is discussed as a potential vice president.
"To be suddenly cast in the World Series is unusual," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant. "She's had a few moments where she has said something that has gotten her in trouble. But no one goes from having never playing baseball to getting hits."
Political consultants say Fiorina serves several roles in shaping the candidate's image. She "softens" McCain by trumpeting his more moderate positions. Her business resume bolsters his economic credentials. And she is a counterpoint to McCain's image as a man's man, championing the Republican senator as a friend to women.
"I happen to be pro-life," Fiorina said late last month during a meeting of Georgia Women for McCain in Atlanta. "There are many women in this country who are not, and yet many of them will support John McCain."
Fiorina has never run for public office, although politics has long been mentioned as her next act. Ever since she took the helm of Palo Alto-based HP in 1999, at the age of 44, friends and California Republicans have nudged her to run for state office. She resisted those invitations while at HP because she felt her work wasn't finished, she wrote in her 2006 memoir, "Tough Choices."
"She electrifies a room when she comes in, and she has an ability to inspire," said Boris Feldman, a Silicon Valley lawyer and friend of Fiorina.
Fiorina, who declined to be interviewed for this article, met McCain in 2000 when she went to Washington to argue against Internet taxation.
She was reintroduced to him last year, and in March was named chairwoman of the Republican National Committee's Victory '08 panel to raise money and rally voters. In May, as the Democratic primary season was winding down and women who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York appeared up for grabs, Fiorina began to appear more frequently on political talk shows and introduced McCain at events.
Her work for the campaign isn't without risks.
During a July breakfast with reporters in Washington, Fiorina said it was incongruous that many health plans covered Viagra but not birth-control medication for women. Yet McCain had twice voted against legislation to mandate that health insurance companies cover birth control.
When asked about Fiorina's comment, McCain appeared stumped. Planned Parenthood turned video of his hemming and hawing into a TV spot.
"She has shown herself a sort of rookie," said Donnie Fowler, a Silicon Valley-based Democratic political strategist.
Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, gives Fiorina high marks for her political presence but said she "tripped over the Viagra issue."
"She has to remember she is speaking for the candidate, not herself," he said.
In her memoir, Fiorina described a life of taking on challenges and going the least comfortable route. She dropped out of UCLA School of Law in 1976, disappointing her father, a law professor who later became a federal judge.
"I found the focus on precedent confining," she wrote. "What about creating something new?"
Fiorina has forged her career going against precedent.