Carly Fiorina, whose rocky tenure as chief executive of Hewlett Packard ended with her firing, is making serious preparations to run next year for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Fiorina's candidacy would be her first foray into elective politics and would turn California's Senate contest into one of the most closely watched in 2010.
In a state that tilts strongly toward Democrats, Boxer would still be favored to win a fourth term, polls suggest.
But Fiorina, a top economic advisor to John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, would be the wealthiest Republican ever to face the Democratic incumbent, making her a more serious threat than previous rivals. Fiorina's personal fortune -- her HP severance alone exceeded $21 million after six years as chief executive -- ensures she could run a full-scale campaign.
If Fiorina won the GOP nomination, she would also be the first woman to challenge Boxer, a milestone for a state Republican Party that has rarely fielded female candidates for high office. Most voters in California are women, and Boxer's appeals to women have been a cornerstone of her 17-year tenure in the Senate. This year, Boxer was outspoken in urging President Obama to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, as he ultimately did.
Adding another unusual dimension to the campaign: Fiorina, 54, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February. Since then, she has undergone chemotherapy; an aide described her prognosis now as "very good." Fiorina has kept a low public profile for months but will speak this weekend at a San Jose fundraising event of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a group that supports cancer survivors.
Laying ground for the probable campaign ahead, Fiorina has been calling key Republican Party players from her home in Los Altos Hills.
"She's seeking their advice, their counsel, their perspective and their potential support," said Deborah Bowker, Fiorina's chief of staff.
Fiorina, who declined to be interviewed, told reporters in March she was "seriously considering" a run for Boxer's seat.
If she runs, Fiorina will face Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine in the June GOP primary. DeVore's conservative profile matches the views of many state Republicans. But few have ever heard of him, and he has shown no ability to raise the millions of dollars needed to make himself better known.
"I just don't see where he gets the funding necessary to run a competitive Republican primary," said Marty Wilson, who has led fundraising for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Apart from campaigning for McCain, Fiorina has a scant public record on policy. But on abortion, often a crucial issue in Senate races because senators vote on court nominees, she has described herself as "pro-life." Because California voters favor abortion rights, that is a potential albatross in a contest against Boxer, even if it helps Fiorina secure her party's nomination.
Most challenging for Fiorina would be her status as a novice candidate, never vetted by a dogged rival or scrutinized by the media as a potential holder of public office.
"First-time candidates are often not perfect candidates," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who nonetheless sees Fiorina as someone who would automatically diminish Boxer's edge in the race.
Even before Fiorina announces whether she will run, Boxer is laboring to dispatch her into the ranks of corporate chieftains who could not survive the rigors of a California campaign for public office. Among other things, Boxer's campaign is publicizing that Portfolio magazine, now defunct, named Fiorina the 19th worst CEO of all time.
However Fiorina's performance at HP is rated -- lavish compensation, layoffs and a messy merger would be sure to figure in the campaign -- it is tough for any executive to run for office at a time when many voters see corporate shenanigans as a top cause of the global economic crisis.
"I think it will be interesting to see how she takes her record at HP and turns it into a compelling reason to elect her to the Senate," said Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski.
It also is uncertain how agile Fiorina would be in day-to-day campaigning. McCain effectively exiled Fiorina after she told a radio station that his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, was unqualified to be a chief executive -- then added later that so were McCain and those on the Democratic ticket, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Still, with the Republican Party facing deep troubles, both nationally and in California, Fiorina's potential candidacy has drawn an enthusiastic response from some of her party's major donors.
"I'm just always impressed with people who can understand a balance sheet, the creation of wealth, the preservation of wealth and tax policy," said Mark Chapin Johnson, a pharmaceutical magnate, who has not discussed the campaign with her.
Boxer's liberal record has sharply divided voters, and she has long been less popular than California's other U.S. senator, fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein. A Field Poll released in March found voters about evenly divided on Boxer's reelection, with 43% inclined to support her and 44% leaning against. But in a hypothetical matchup with Fiorina, voters favored Boxer 55% to 25%.
For Fiorina, the outlook was less bleak in the Republican primary. The survey found Fiorina ahead of DeVore among registered Republicans 31% to 19%, with 50% undecided.