In New Hampshire, where tear duct-draining temperatures and a maze of towering snow banks continue to test even the heartiest winter trouper’s mettle, much of the talk these days centers around wistful plans for tropical getaways.
But as growing numbers of Republican politicians from more temperate locales defy all climatic logic to travel to the Granite State this winter, talk of 2016 presidential politics has been picking up, too.
Big-name contenders including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio all have been wooing New Hampshire-based operatives and activists to help guide them through the primary process as they begin upping their personal travel there.
But one less familiar potential 2016 presidential candidate is quietly garnering interest attention from the tightknit community of GOP power brokers.
Recent conversations with plugged-in Republicans across the state reveal a consensus that Carly Fiorina—the former Hewlett-Packard CEO—is positioning herself well as a potential dark horse White House contender capable of making a serious run.
Take Jim Adams, a lifelong New Hampshire resident, who has had a front row seat to the first-in-the-nation primary since 1960 when, at the age of 10, he saw John F. Kennedy deliver a campaign speech in Manchester.
Adams—who now serves as chairman of the Granite State Taxpayers Association—has since been through enough primary fights to recognize untapped potential when he sees it. And he sees something in Fiorina—whose only previous foray into electoral politics was a failed 2010 bid for a U.S. Senate seat in California.
”I think that she could be the real wild card in this thing, and I’m very impressed by her,” Adams said. “The thing that I find with Carly, and I’ve listened to her three times now, is that she debunks all the Democratic attacks on the ‘war on women.’ Coming from a woman, it has so much more validity.”
Though Fiorina is barely registering in the polls, Adams isn’t the only GOP activist in New Hampshire who sees something in the long-shot contender and is particularly intrigued by her status as the only Republican woman exploring a presidential run with any degree of earnestness.
Other New Hampshire politicos already have imagined a scenario in which Fiorina would benefit from being the lone female voice on a stage containing close to a dozen men when the 2016 Republican candidates square off in their first debate.
And with many Republicans anticipating a general election matchup against Hillary Clinton, Fiorina’s immediate appeal is all the more magnified.
“The thing she points out that’s refreshing to a lot of women is that we care about a lot of different subjects, yet we’ve been pigeonholed into caring about just one issue,” much of it involving women’s reproductive rights, said Karen Testerman, a conservative activist who was briefly a Republican candidate in the U.S. Senate race last year.
It’s not just Fiorina’s gender that’s captured the interest of influential New Hampshire Republicans.
In interviews, several cited her private sector experience, engaging presence on the stump and compelling life story as a woman who rose from a secretarial position to helming one of the nation’s biggest corporations as reasons to believe that she could end up in the mix once rank-and-file primary voters start tuning in.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say how impressed they were and that they went in to see her thinking it’d be the same old, ‘I’m an outsider’ speech, and they were wowed by her depth and insight,” said Concord GOP committee chair Kerry Marsh. ”I’ve heard nothing but good things, and she seems to make herself very available.”
Though she also made a positive impression in Iowa last month when she spoke at the first major GOP cattle call of the 2016 race, it is in fiscally minded New Hampshire—a state where the governor, both senators and one of the two U.S. House members are women—where Fiorina figures to have her best shot.
Making herself available in New Hampshire has worked well for her so far, and soon Fiorina will be something closer to ubiquitous.
She traveled to New Hampshire three times during the 2014 midterm cycle and has three additional trips planned to the state over the next two-and-a-half months, including a desirable slot as the commencement speaker at Southern New Hampshire University in early May.
While her background as the only business executive in the race figures to endear her to the business-minded Republicans in New Hampshire who typically rally behind a contender with close ties to the GOP establishment, Fiorina has also been impressing activists from the conservative grassroots wing of the party.
Andrew Hemingway, who earned the backing of several New Hampshire-based Tea Party-aligned groups during his unsuccessful bid for the 2014 Republican gubernatorial nomination, called Fiorina “someone to watch,” noting that he had so far found her to be “an articulate, accomplished, and competent executive capable of leading this country.”
“I believe she could be a surprise to a lot of people,” Hemingway said. “Doubling the size of HP while CEO, conducting one of the largest mergers in tech history and with the vision of a tech entrepreneur … these make up a unique and very compelling profile.”
If she does begin to generate momentum in the polls, Fiorina’s rivals will have plenty of fodder for their own opposition researchers to chew over.
Her tenure at Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005—which ended in her forced resignation—wastumultuous to say the least, and there is no shortage of former employees eager to talk to reporters about what they saw as her failed leadership there.
And then there is the question of her total lack of experience in elected office.
Professional politics may be among the least esteemed careers in American life, but the fact remains that every president in U.S. history was first either an elected official or a military leader before ascending to the White House.
Even if Fiorina can convince voters she has the appropriate experience for the job, she lacks anything remotely resembling the kind of national fundraising network that the top-tier Republican contenders have at their disposal.
And in a Republican race in which foreign policy has so far been at the forefront of the conversation, can Fiorina really make the case that she is equipped to stare down powerful adversaries in an increasingly unstable international climate?
In fact, she has been striving to do just that.
“I actually have sat across a table from Vladimir Putin,” Fiorina told Newsmax last week. “I actually have sat in the same room with Benjamin Netanyahu or King Abdullah or the Chinese leadership. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with leaders who are on the world stage today.”
In that same interview, Fiorina put the odds that she ends up entering the 2016 race at “over 50 percent.”
She will be among the slew of prospective Republican presidential hopefuls who will address the throngs of activists on hand at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Then, it will be back to New Hampshire next Saturday for a full slate of events and another opportunity to make an impression—slowly but surely.
“I think it’s helpful and nice to have a woman in the mix,” said New Hampshire’s Republican National Committeewoman Juliana Bergeron. “She’s a serious candidate and I think in some ways more serious than some of those who we’re paying more attention to at this point.”