Carly Fiorina out of hospital: How does illness affect a campaign?

Carly Fiorina spent a day in the hospital this week. The impact it has on her bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer could depend on how her campaign handles the challenge.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for the seat held by Sen. Barbara Boxer, speaks to a group of volunteers during a visit to a phone bank at Republican headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., on Sunday.

With the announcement that Carly Fiorina, the Republican challenger for the US Senate seat held by Barbara Boxer, was released from a California hospital Wednesday, the focus shifts to what the episode will mean for her campaign.

Ms. Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, had surgery for breast cancer in February 2009, and on Monday developed an infection from a follow-up operation she had over the summer.

Eight points behind Senator Boxer in an Oct. 24 Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll, Fiorina was mounting an aggressive advertising blitz credited with helping to keep Senator Boxer from pulling away.

The impact of Fiorina's day in the hospital will likely depend on how she and her staff handle it. The final few days of a campaign are often crucial, and illness represents an unexpected challenge. But Fiorina might also be helped slightly – the episode humanizes her and forces Boxer to ease off attacking her.

“Unless there is much more to the illness than the campaign has disclosed, it won't hurt Fiorina. It probably helps her a bit,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “It reminds people that she's not just a millionaire, but a cancer survivor who has firsthand experience with life-shaping challenges.”

How her staff maintains its focus from here, however, will be important, say others.

“A day off the campaign trial is not three days,” says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “That is the good news ... but any time anything like a health issue or a scandal comes this late in, it refocuses the staff and energy away from the primary goal of the campaign to get its message out. Some of that has already happened. How well will they be able to refocus is the question.”

Conventional wisdom says that Fiorina should get some sympathy vote, says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "But that relates more to the party faithful than the undecided voters, [whom] she needs to turn this election around."

It is not unprecedented for candidates to leave the campaign trail for health reasons. In 2006, Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota suffered a brain hemorrhage that kept him out of commission for months and left him with speech problems and partial paralysis. He won reelection in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote. President Obama left the campaign trail in the final days of Election 2008 to spend time with his aging grandmother.

These cases are different, analysts say, because Obama was well ahead in the polls at the time, and the time between Senator Johnson’s episode and the election was several months.

In general terms, analysts say the effect of an illness depends on what the malady is.

“Because [Fiorina's absence] is connected to her cancer," it is more of a concern, says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “If she were in the hospital for a broken arm or the flu, it wouldn’t have as much of an impact."

The office being sought can also play a role, says Mr. Pitney.

“Presidents have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. Arguably, it can be dangerous to have an ailing or impaired chief executive,” says Pitney. Same goes for governors, he says. "Senators are different. Though they do have important work, they do not have executive responsibility. Each is just one out of 100. On the rare occasions when one senator's vote is decisive, there is plenty of advance notice.“

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