Carly Fiorina is the only presidential candidate with the advantage of two campaigns. There's the one she is running herself and the one the rest of the Republican Party is conducting on her behalf.
The party being accused of waging a "war on women" and facing a likely general election campaign against Hillary Clinton has gotten wise to the advantages of having Fiorina — a polished communicator who appeals both to the business community and grassroots activists, and who happens to be female — in the race.
As a result, rival candidates have heaped praise on her and their donors have cut her checks. In recent days, the Republican National Committee even pressured CNN to change its debate eligibility rules to put her on stage, according to a Republican involved in the debate process.
But as she rises in the polls — the most recent Monmouth University Iowa survey puts her in third place there — and gets a chance to shine in a second debate performance, her success will test how far her rivals are willing to go to reap the advantages she brings to the party before deciding she has grown into a real political threat.
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Already, some are starting to chafe. "The change in criteria was surprising, but it was obvious that neither [RNC Chairman] Reince [Priebus] nor CNN wanted to leave the only female candidate in the race out, so they continued to change the playing field, and that’s disappointing,” said a senior adviser to another campaign.
Right now, her candidacy looks like a win-win that has resuscitated a political career that so far has consisted of a single lost Senate race while also adding gender diversity to the sprawling Republican field.
Though some Republican boosters of Fiorina say they do not believe gender plays into the party’s fondness for her, others are more explicit about that aspect of her appeal.
"I'm a woman elected official in the GOP, and there's no war on women, but that being said we need to attract more talented women like Carly," said Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, a state co-chair of Fiorina's campaign. "We must have her on that stage and we must have her helping to shape the Republican message.”
GOP donors believe strongly enough in the image boost she gives to the party that they are making side investments in her campaign even as they support other candidates with more credible shots at the nomination.
Most notably, a super PAC controlled by Ted Cruz megadonor Robert Mercer donated $500,000 to a pro-Fiorina super PAC, even as it spends millions on the Texas senator it was set up to back.
Kent Burton, a former Mitt Romney bundler who served on the 2012 GOP nominee's national finance committee, said he might make a similar play.
Burton has yet to commit to a 2016 candidate, but is considering supporting Fiorina in addition to a more-viable candidate. "I think she's good for the party to have her in the mix," he said.
Several other donors have already double-dipped to help Fiorina. Former Univision Chairman Jerry Perenchio has given about $1.5 million to her super PAC and campaign committee and given an additional $100,000 to the pro-Bush super PAC. Linda McMahon has also given to Jeb Bush and to Chris Christie, who appears to be her top choice. Dallas philanthropist Elloine Clark has contributed thousands to at least five other candidates. And business executive Robert Day has also given $1 million to the pro-Bush super PAC.
And the more donors get to know Fiorina, the more they like her, even if they have not gotten the memo on expressing their admiration with gender-neutral language.
“People at this seminar like Walker, they like Rubio, and they like Carly’s balls, for lack of a better word," said one tech industry donor who attended an August seminar in California hosted by the Koch brothers at which several Republican candidates were given a chance to woo potential contributors.
And in recent weeks, as her national profile has risen on the strength of that performance, her super PAC’s fundraising pace has picked up, according to Katie Hughes, a spokeswoman for the group.
That boost came after Fiorina outshone the other second-tier candidates on Fox News last month, where she was the clear-cut winner of the B-team debate.
It did not hurt that rather than attacking her during the debate, rival candidates praised her. “I would rather have Carly Fiorina over there doing our negotiation than John Kerry,” said Rick Perry. When asked about putting a woman on the $20-bill, Rick Santorum said, “Carly’s a pretty good choice.”
And before CNN announced a change to its qualification rules for the upcoming debate, Ben Carson’s campaign spoke out on Fiorina’s behalf, saying she should be allowed to participate even though she would not be eligible according to the rules originally set forth by the network.
“Carly earned her place on that stage,” said Deputy Campaign Manager Sarah Isgur Flores. “She is No. 3 in New Hampshire and No. 3 in Iowa. She has been well within the top 10 in national polling for a month. End of story.”
But as her star rises, so does the threat she poses to other Republicans, and a Fiorina backlash may be in the making. Already, an adviser to another campaign complained to POLITICO about CNN’s decision to change its eligibility rules to get Fiorina on the debate stage.
Another Republican involved in the debate process said that CNN employees complained to him about the pressure the RNC exerted on them in recent days to change those rules to Fiorina’s benefit. He said he, too, was concerned by the lengths the party went to wade into the process.
“They put a lot of heat on CNN,” he said. “It’s troubling to know that the Fourth Estate in order to play the ratings game is having to bend to the will of a political party.”
And even as she praised Fiorina’s campaign, Kellyanne Conway, president of the pro-Cruz, Mercer-backed super PAC that donated to Fiorina’s PAC, said there will be no more contributions to the former HP executive.
"Keep the Promise I super PAC was founded with the express purpose of supporting Ted Cruz for president,” said Conway. “We’re all in for Ted Cruz.”
Ben Schreckinger and Tarini Parti write for POLITICO.