Iowa voters are known to fall in love with firebrand candidates and underfunded outsiders, from Pat Buchanan in 1996 to Howard Dean in 2004. And this cycle, Republicans here are starting to swoon over former HP executive Carly Fiorina.

Share story

DES MOINES, Iowa — After 11 Republican presidential contenders spoke to a huge gathering of Iowa party activists at the Lincoln Day Dinner this month, they moved to hospitality suites to greet people one on one.

Jeb Bush’s suite looked sparse, with a handful of visitors asking the former Florida governor for a photo. Rick Santorum said hello to a scattering of old supporters.

But the line to meet one candidate, Carly Fiorina, a former Silicon Valley executive whose name recognition is negligible among voters, snaked down the hallway. For more than an hour, Iowans filed into the suite for their chance to meet Fiorina.

Fiorina, a former chief executive at Hewlett-Packard with a flair for biting one-liners, had just delivered a speech that included references to God and a joke about former President Clinton’s hormones. When a timekeeper cut off her microphone, indicating that she had used up her allotted 10 minutes, the audience broke out in catcalls and groans. The crowd wanted more Carly.

“It was the most exciting speech all night,” said Cait Suttie, 27, who waited to meet Fiorina and now wants to volunteer with her campaign.

Iowa voters are known to fall in love with firebrand candidates and underfunded outsiders, from Pat Buchanan in 1996 to Howard Dean in 2004. And this cycle, Republicans here are starting to swoon over Fiorina, who is so unknown in national polls that she may not even be included in the first presidential debate in August.

Fiorina, whose net worth is between $30 million and $119 million, has generated headlines and steady crowds of conservative voters. In April, nearly 300 people showed up to see her deliver the keynote address at the Clinton County Republican Party dinner in Iowa, twice as many as were expected. On Saturday, when she spoke at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, she was interrupted by several standing ovations.

Whether Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican race, can build from her status as a crowd-pleasing speaker and curiosity into a serious competitor is not clear. But something is happening on the ground here.

While supporters in Iowa noted that she had doubled her standing in state polls, it was a statistically insignificant change from 1 percent to 2 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released May 6. (That may seem piddling, but the same poll had Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, also at 2 percent, while 5 percent supported Bush.)

Not even Fiorina’s aides predicted that she would become the surprise hit at the Lincoln Day Dinner on May 16, which 1,300 Republican stalwarts paid $75 a plate to attend.

“She walked on the stage, and they said, ‘Who is she?’” said Steve DeMaura, the executive director of Carly for America, a “super PAC” that supports her candidacy. “And then she walked off the stage, and they said: ‘She’s impressive. I want to see her six more times.’”

Gender clearly separates Fiorina from the pack. And she seems to be building on the popularity of Joni Ernst, the state’s motorcycle-riding senator, who became the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress after a campaign last fall in which she promised to cut pork in Washington much the way she had castrated pigs on her farm.

But another element of Fiorina’s appeal is an experience often lost in her biography: She spent much of her technology career in marketing, and has a talent for reading an audience and crafting pithy, and sometimes cutting, comments. Fiorina says she writes all of her own remarks, including some choice jabs at the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Flying is not an accomplishment, it’s an activity,” she likes to say, knocking Clinton’s boast that she traveled 956,733 miles as secretary of state. In her announcement video, Fiorina watched — and critiqued — Clinton’s own announcement video.

She is prepared with answers on issues from the Islamic State to the California drought (which she has blamed on “overzealous liberal environmentalists”) and distills them into one-liners that play to the party’s base. Of the Affordable Care Act, Fiorina likes to say, “The law is longer than a Harry Potter novel and not nearly as interesting.”

But at times, Fiorina, 60, also speaks in deeply personal terms about her faith, her struggles to conceive a child, her survival of breast cancer and the death of a stepdaughter, experiences that seem to resonate with a heavily evangelical party base. “It was my husband Frank’s and my personal relationship with Jesus Christ that saved us from a desperate sadness,” she has said.

Her favorite remark on the trail — after bashing Clinton — is to relay the advice of her mother, who taught Sunday school: “What you are is God’s gift to you, and what you make of yourself is your gift to God.”

Fiorina has been among the most frequent visitors to Iowa in the Republican field. She has spent 10 days in the state this year, according to a tally kept by The Des Moines Register, and on a five-day swing last month, she held 13 events. On June 6, she will be back, attending a “Roast and Ride” event with Ernst, a fundraiser that includes a 38-mile ride on a Harley-Davidson, followed by barbecue and horseshoes.

Her campaign is expanding in the state faster than those of some better-known rivals, and aides hope a strong showing in Iowa will give Fiorina the money, infrastructure and enthusiasm to continue to make her case in New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.

Supporters are careful not to call it a groundswell. “Everyone, understand the challenges she faces,” said Boris Feldman, a Silicon Valley lawyer and fundraiser for Fiorina. The Republican establishment is “ready to declare the messiah before the three wise men arrive,” he said, but independent-minded Iowans can help stem the tide.

Fiorina — who lived all over the world as a child, was educated at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was once criticized for her reliance on private jets at Hewlett-Packard — is not traveling in grand style here. In April, she was driven around the state in a Honda CRV owned by Mary Earnhardt of West Des Moines, who is the Iowa director of Carly for America.

“To me it’s quite fun to see people in their element where they’re comfortable,” Fiorina said in a telephone interview.

Still, she has not caught on to all the local customs.

“You meet people over breakfast, you talk to them while they’re eating gigantic cinnamon rolls or a Pizza Palace breakfast or whatever it is,” she said. (A spokeswoman said Fiorina was referring to Pizza Ranch, an evangelical-owned pizza chain and must-stop for candidates here.)

The most immediate aim for the Fiorina campaign is making the threshold for the first debate, which Fox News has said will include only the top 10 contenders.

In perhaps the most meaningful sign that Fiorina is gaining, she is starting to annoy others in the back of the pack. After the Lincoln Day Dinner, a flustered Donald Trump, told The Register that more people had come to his hospitality suite than to Fiorina’s, which seemed a debatable claim. “I had people counting. I was curious,” he said.

“She’s a nice woman,” said Trump, who is expected to announce his own plans next month. “But she got fired viciously from Hewlett-Packard.”