US & Canada

Who is Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina?

Carly Fiorina onstage at the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina onstage at the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California

After the Wednesday evening Republican presidential debate, Carly Fiorina emerged as a clear standout.

At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Carly Fiorina captured a lot of airtime, accolades and new fans on the crowded stage of 11 candidates. She claimed the third most speaking time (and interrupted the most). She gained 22,000 Twitter followers. And her rebuttal to Donald Trump's "look at that face" comment lit up the internet with reaction and applause.

"I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," she told the audience.

She has been slowly gaining traction in the polls but barely made the cut for the main stage Wednesday night to face off with top contenders like Trump, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.

So, who is she, how did she get here and what challenges lie ahead?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Carly Fiorina, at the time the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, appears with Bill Gates in New York in November, 2002

Early life and career

Cara Carleton Sneed was born in 1954 in Austin, Texas. After earning an undergraduate degree at Stanford University and then dropping out of law school, she went to work for AT&T as a sales representative and steadily moved up the ranks.

She met her husband Frank Fiorina at AT&T and became a mother to his two daughters from a previous relationship.

In 1990, she became AT&T's first female senior vice president, then took over a spinoff company called Lucent Technologies, which dramatically increased in value under her watch. In 1998, she was named "The Most Powerful Woman in American Business" by Fortune magazine.

She was named CEO of Hewlett-Packard in 1999, becoming the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company. She oversaw a controversial merger between HP and rival Compaq, which some consider a disaster, leading to 30,000 layoffs and plummeting stock prices.

Fiorina was fired by her board of directors in 2005.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Carly Fiorina, as McCain economic advisor to his 2008 campaign, appears on Meet the Press

Early political ambition and cancer diagnosis

The year after her ouster, she began working for Republican Senator John McCain's presidential campaign. In 2008, she served as McCain's economic advisor and some wondered if she was material for political office.

Fiorina was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Two weeks after she completed treatment, she and her husband Frank received word their youngest daughter had died. Fiorina wrote in her book Rising to the Challenge that the death was connected to 35-year-old Lori Ann Fiorina's years-long addiction to alcohol and prescription medication.

Not long after that tragic news, she announced she was running for the US Senate against Barbara Boxer in California. Fiorina won the Republican primary handily, but lost to Boxer in the general election.

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Image caption Fiorina announces her candidacy for senate, just after completing chemotherapy in 2009

Presidential campaign and the road ahead

Fiorina announced her campaign for presidency in May. While initially struggling for significance in the polls, her two debate appearances have substantially buoyed her profile, as has her spat with Trump.

On Wednesday, she harshly attacked Planned Parenthood (she is anti-abortion), told the story of her daughter's death in relation to drug de-criminalisation, and shared her thoughts on foreign policy in regards to Russia and the Middle East. She also defended her record as the CEO of HP, saying that she lead the company through a tough time after the tech bubble burst.

While most pundits seem to agree that Fiorina emerged the clear winner of Wednesday's debate, there is a long road ahead, says Larry J Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He says her relatively tiny campaign war chest and her only credentials being from the world of business are going to become increasingly troublesome.

"Her basic challenge is she has never held public office of any sort," he says. "Her corporate record is going to cause her problems."

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Image caption Carly Fiorina at a campaign event in New Hampshire this month

Sabato says he and other political analysts like him are inundated by tweets and emails from former HP employees who lost their jobs during her time as CEO.

"They've organised and they're determined to make sure that their story is told," he says. "As you can imagine, they're very anti-Fiorina."

Part of the reason Fiorina is said to have struggled at HP may also play into her ongoing struggles as a candidate - her so-called "likeability," which is a far greater problem for female candidates as opposed to male candidates according to Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which researches women in elections. Kimmell points out that while Fiorina was praised for her performance, she was almost immediately criticised thereafter for not smiling enough.

"If a voter views a woman as not likeable, they automatically view her as less qualified," she says. "Men don't carry the burden of needing to be liked to be elected."

"I didn't see Marco Rubio crack a smile, but I didn't hear anyone say he didn't seem likeable enough."

Sabato also says that winning a debate hardly translates into winning an election.

"There isn't a direct correlation between debate performance and vote performance," he says. "We need to remember it's a very different process when you get at least to Iowa and New Hampshire."

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