Is Carly Fiorina the Answer to McCain’s Prayers for a VP?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 3, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina may or may not be on Arizona Sen. John McCain’s short list for vice president, but she already is taking a crucial role in the Republican presidential hopeful’s campaign.

In March, Fiorina was picked by the Republican National Committee to chair a group directed to raise money and get out the vote for this year’s elections. Shortly after that move was announced, Fiorina was interviewed by Business Week about her role.

“My role is to be the primary advocate for John McCain and for the Republican Party,” she said.

“Certainly there are a lot of people who are engaged in fund-raising who are more expert at it than I am. My role primarily is to advocate and communicate with the American people about the candidate and the party. And certainly I have a business background and understand economics, and so I will be engaged in that part as well,” she continued.

She has been doing plenty of media for McCain, including representing his campaign on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.

It’s reasonable to believe that Fiorina, 53, is on an extended trial as McCain’s running mate.

Sure, plenty of Republicans have been mentioned as possible running mates for the Arizona Republican, but none of them seem particularly helpful to McCain. Most of the frequently mentioned names are white men who most voters haven’t heard of.

Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mark Sanford of South Carolina would probably be fine, but let’s face it, neither brings much to McCain. At best, they are “do no harm” nominees.

Most people would yawn at the announcement of either man, and the selection would do little to shake up the existing contours of the presidential contest.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge gets mentioned, but McCain may flinch at the thought of selecting a pro-choice Republican (even though Ridge might well be his best choice). Some conservatives already see McCain as an unreliable ally, and adding Ridge to the ticket might aggravate the Arizonan’s problems with the GOP base.

Fiorina is obviously smart and articulate, is comfortable in the media spotlight and, frankly, looks like a national political leader. She is comfortable talking about the economy and about business, two things that McCain doesn’t deal with well.

Her gender is an obvious asset. While Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) might add a woman to his ticket, that’s far from certain. Selecting Fiorina as the GOP VP nominee could have appeal to some women voters disgruntled by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s loss.

Even more important, a McCain-Fiorina ticket would be hard to peg as purely “stay the course,” though Democrats surely would do so.

San Jose State University political scientist/television commentator Larry Gerston, speculating in April on Fiorina as a possible VP nominee, asserted that, given her Hewlett Packard ties, “she would possibly have some success in bringing McCain California’s 55 electoral votes.” That’s silly, so let’s not even go there. McCain isn’t winning California, no matter who he picks.

Fiorina’s downside is rather easy to sketch out.

A former corporate executive, she would quickly become a talking point for Democrats who want to run against McCain as just another Republican apologist for big business.

CEO compensation issues (Fiorina’s severance package on leaving HP reportedly was in the area of $42 million) as well as questions about her business acumen and management style, which led to her being forced out of her post at Hewlett-Packard, all would provide fodder for reporters and Democratic spinners.

Everything that happened at Hewlett-Packard during Fiorina’s term of employment at the company, whether involving sales, employees or strategic business decisions, would become fair game. And it’s not only her years at HP that would invite scrutiny. Her years at AT&T and Lucent Technologies would also come under scrutiny, as would the companies on whose boards she serves.

For Democratic opposition researchers, Fiorina sounds like a dream come true.

And because Fiorina has never been a candidate for office, who knows how she would handle the scrutiny?

Yes, Fiorina has been in the limelight for years and understands how to deal with the media. And yes, she’s smart and poised. But being a candidate for office — particularly a very high office — is something very different. Plenty of CEOs who have run for high office, whether Senator or governor, have not succeeded, finding the political arena more difficult than they had imagined.

I’ve written previously that if McCain wants to go with a nontraditional VP pick, Fiorina, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Ridge all would fill the bill. Of the three, nonpolitician Fiorina would be by far the riskiest of the bunch. Too risky, in fact.