Hundreds of conservative and evangelical activists had been listening politely and applauding on cue as Carly Fiorina talked about God, and opportunity, and work ethic. For many of those attending the Iowa Freedom Summit, it was the first time they'd heard her speak. For some, it was the first time they'd heard of her at all.
Then, more than 10 minutes into the speech, she mentioned Hillary Clinton.
"Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe," said Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard. "But unlike her, I've actually accomplished something. You see, Mrs. Clinton, flying is not an accomplishment; it is an activity."
The audience roared and was suddenly engaged, hanging on her words as she criticized Clinton on one issue after another. And when she landed on Benghazi—"Unlike Hillary Clinton, I know what difference it makes that our American ambassador and three other brave Americans were killed in a deliberate terrorist attack"—the crowd surged to its feet with a standing ovation.
"That's the first time I've ever seen her in person, and, frankly, I was moved by the speech. That takes a lot," says Sam Clovis, a former conservative radio host and tea-party favorite in Iowa. "It was the perfect speech on the perfect topic at the perfect place at the perfect time given in the perfect manner."
Fiorina, the only Republican woman actively considering a run for the White House, is taking on Clinton more forcefully and directly than any other GOP contender. It's a deliberate strategy meant to make headlines, differentiate her from the pack, and elevate her position on the national stage. And in the process, it's winning her friends, as Fiorina assumes an attack role that many Republican strategists think male GOP candidates need to avoid.
Now, midterms behind her, Fiorina and her super PAC have shifted from defense to offense, assuming the role of chief Clinton antagonist.
"She is absolutely fearless," says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports candidates who oppose abortion rights. "She doesn't shrink back."
It's not that Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, or other candidates are stepping lightly. Just last month, Clinton's name rang through the Conservative Political Action Conference dozens of times, as Republicans quipped about foreign donations to Clinton's foundation, tacked her name onto criticism of President Obama's policies, or, as Marco Rubio did, called her a candidate of "yesterday."
But Fiorina's offensive is in a class of its own, and for one reason: She's a woman, so she can.
"She tweets about women's rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights," Fiorina said at CPAC. "She tweets about equal pay for women, but won't answer basic questions about her own office's pay standards—and neither will our president. Hillary may like hashtags, but she doesn't know what leadership means."
These are not just convenient applause lines—they're part of a campaign plan Fiorina has been methodically preparing and road testing since the June 2014 launch of her super PAC, the Unlocking Potential Project. Her intention then was to become the chief GOP voice against the Democrats' "war on women" message, and to give her a reason to show up in Iowa and New Hampshire. "The 'war on women' is shameless, baseless propaganda—there is no fact to it," Fiorina told CNN after the PAC's launch. "But it's worked, because it's scared women to death. Enough." She followed that up with training for campaign operatives and volunteers in states that would determine Senate control to teach them how to talk about things like equal pay and women's health.
Now, midterms behind her, Fiorina and her super PAC have shifted from defense to offense, assuming the role of chief Clinton antagonist. "Republicans are looking for someone that can both present a positive optimistic vision for the future and act as an effective critic of Hillary Clinton," says Stephen DeMaura, a former aide at Unlocking Potential who now runs the super PAC supporting Fiorina, Carly for America. "So when people call Carly the anti-Hillary, we welcome that."
Indeed, this is the role Fiorina sought.
Clinton "will play the gender card over and over again, which is unfortunate but predictable," Fiorina told National Journal's Nancy Cook recently.
"Democrats play identity politics," she said. "It's dismissive of women; it's insulting to women. It's inaccurate in the supposed facts that it lays out. Democrats think identity politics has worked, and unfortunately, they have a lot of evidence to support that it works. So, we have to push back hard."
Not many male candidates will be so eager to take on gender politics this cycle. They are being advised to tread cautiously. "There's a natural hesitance from male candidates when they're running against a woman to be too aggressive, because if they've run against a woman, they've probably been burned by this before," says Katie Packer Gage, who was Mitt Romney's deputy campaign manager in 2012 and is now a partner at the GOP firm Burning Glass Consulting.
Gage and Burning Glass are working on Republican messaging strategies, drafting guidance on the best ways for the party to criticize Clinton in 2016. "I think the other candidates are going to have to figure out how they walk that line where they effectively go after Hillary on her legitimate weaknesses—without coming across like "¦ some kind of bully," says Gage.
And this cycle wouldn't be the first time a male candidate faced that charge when competing against Clinton. In 2000, her opponent for the Senate, Rick Lazio, walked across the debate stage with a piece of paper in hand and tried to get her to sign a pledge against soft money. The move backfired, making Lazio look like a bully. "Some of these Republican men seem almost fearful of having their own Rick Lazio moment," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.
But Fiorina's not just playing bad cop for the good of her team. She's purposely avoiding the intra-party sniping that voters so often find petty and instead gaining attention for saying things others won't. And through this, she aims to build a brand that will keep her in this contest a lot longer than most pundits predict.
"It's her strategy that she came up with. She thinks it's right, but it also gets her the attention," says GOP strategist Charlie Black. The aim, he adds, is to "get her enough coverage that, in the debates, people pay attention to her "¦ because she will do extremely well in the debates."
If she gets to the debates. Certainly, gaining traction now could help Fiorina garner enough support to qualify, and that's something that even Republicans who are leaning toward or actively backing other candidates say they'd like to see.
"Carly is going to acquit herself well on a debate stage," says Ned Ryun, a board member of the American Conservative Union and founder of the group American Majority. "People are going to say, 'We want her to be in longer just to be part of a debate.'"Š" (At CPAC, Fiorina also made reference to her debate chops, albeit in the general election: "If Hillary Clinton had to face me on a debate stage, at the very least she would have a hitch in her swing," she said.)
But getting even that far—the first Republican debates are scheduled for August—is a tall order for Fiorina. She's polling dismally, pulling just 1 percent in a February CNN/ORC national poll of Republican voters. And, as if it could be any worse, the cross-tabs show her performing more poorly with women than men.
Clinton's defenders seem not worried at all. "In the past, Carly Fiorina has had good things to say about the work of the Clinton Foundation, and she seemed to enjoy speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative," says Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for Correct the Record, a group run by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. "Hillary Clinton's vast list of accomplishments for children and working families speak for themselves, and anyone trying to distort or detract from these facts is attempting to profit off the media attention and execute their own agenda."
Indeed, while taking aim at Clinton might elevate Fiorina in this phase of the contest, she will need to move beyond that to be viewed as anything but a long shot—or a hopeful for Commerce secretary in a Republican administration.
"It's important for her to also show that she's more than that—that she can be more than that," said Nick Ryan, founder of the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative group. "And I think that's a natural next step for her to take. Frankly, for her to have staying power and be able to go through a caucus, she has to grow beyond that."