Michael Holahan/The Aiken Standard/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina acknowledges applause from the crowd after she is introduced at a town hall meeting at the University of South Carolina at Aiken Convocation Center on Oct. 2 in Aiken, S.C.

The Carly Fiorina conundrum: What Republicans want from a woman president

Republicans aren't too concerned about electing a woman president. And for Carly Fiorina, that's just fine, it would seem.

The first mention of Hillary Clinton is, of course, not very complimentary.

Carly Fiorina is on the campaign trail in South Carolina and she is in full flow about Mrs. Clinton’s testimony before the House Benghazi committee in Washington a day earlier, hammering the Democratic front-runner.

Then, not long after, the tone of her speech changes, though the subject does not. Ms. Fiorina does have some empathy for Clinton – because she is also a woman running for president.

“Early on in my campaign, I was asked on national television whether I thought that a woman’s hormones prevented her from serving in the Oval Office,” Fiorina said. “My answer was, ‘Gee, can we think of a single instance in which a man’s judgment might have been clouded by his hormones?’ ”

In those few moments Friday, Fiorina brought one of her campaign’s conundrums into sharp relief. Arguably her greatest value to the Republican Party is her ability to deflect the Democratic claim that Republicans are waging a war on women. Moreover, perhaps her most memorable moment as a presidential candidate came when she elegantly defended herself – and all women – against a seemingly sexist comment by Donald Trump.

Just don’t expect to hear that from her. She is most definitely not running “as a woman.” She has decried “identity politics” and said “liberal ideas aren’t the answer. Their version of feminism isn’t working. It’s time for a new definition.”

Just as Ben Carson, an African-American, and Marco Rubio, a Latino, have done little to accentuate their ethnicities as they rise in the polls, Fiorina has generally shied away from embracing her gender as a campaign tactic. More often, she has turned the issue on its head, as when she declared during the Sept. 17 debate that “women are not a special interest group.”

Though polls suggest that Fiorina’s popularity might be waning, there’s little to suggest that has anything to do with her gender. To the contrary, polls and interviews suggest Fiorina’s approach to her own gender is precisely what Republican voters want.

“I will never ask for your vote because I am a woman, although I’m proud to be one,” Fiorina said Friday. “I will ask for your vote and your support and your prayers because I believe I am the most qualified to win this job and to do this job.”

Woman president? 'We're not that shallow...'

To win the Republican nomination, there’s wisdom to that approach. A January Pew Research Center poll showed that fewer than 20 percent of Republicans hoped that a female president would be elected in their lifetimes (compared with more than half of Democrats).

Attendees at Friday’s event at a satellite campus of the University of South Carolina echoed those sentiments.

Fiorina won points for her references to the need for more secure borders, to roll back President Obama’s agreement with Iran, and to pledge support to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Patty Stevenson, a local Republican voter, said she remains undecided, but liked what Fiorina said about those issues during her 45-minute appearance.

“She touched on all the fundamental points that we are looking to have answered,” Ms. Stevenson said. “Now I’m looking forward even more so to the [next] debate.”

But if Stevenson opts for Fiorina, it won’t be because Fiorina is a woman. “It is of no importance,” she said.

South Carolina looms large as the first primary after Iowa and New Hampshire and tends to be cast as the bellwether for Southern states.

After the rally here Friday, Republican state Rep. Shannon Erickson dismissed the notion of women supporting Fiorina in the primary based on gender.

“We’re not that shallow,” Representative Erickson says. “We’re a multi-faceted group of women.… It’s ability, it’s forward-thinking, it’s integrity. Passion, leadership and probably honor. I think we’ve been lacking some honor.”

In Iowa, for example, these qualities have drawn Republican women to Mr. Carson, who has surpassed Mr. Trump largely because of their support. A Quinnipiac poll showed women backing Carson over Trump, 33 to 13 percent, while men were evenly split between the two.

Feminism, reimagined

Yet ironically, Fiorina’s rise began when an ad from her super political action committee focused conspicuously on her gender. After Trump told Rolling Stone magazine, “Would anyone vote for that?” – speaking of Fiorina’s face – Fiorina turned the tables. The ad showed the faces of ordinary women, with Fiorina saying, “Look at all of your faces…. The face of leadership in our party, the party of women’s suffrage.”

“This is the face of a 61-year-old woman,” the ad concluded. “I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.”

The Republican Party is keenly aware of its needs to make inroads with women voters. A report by two major Republican groups found that women saw the party as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion,” and “stuck in the past,” according to Politico.

But as in South Carolina, some of Fiorina’s biggest applause lines have come in attempting to reframe the issue of gender along more conservative lines. When asked in Manchester, N.H., whether she was a feminist, she said it depended on the definition.

“There are a lot of liberal women who use the term feminism all the time who would describe my candidacy as an offense to women,” she said.

She said she wanted to fight not only for women to be executives, as she was, but also to opt not to work and instead homeschool their children, according to a Reuters report.

“When feminism is about a woman’s ability to choose what she wants, what she believes, and how she lives, then most definitely, I am a feminist,” she said.

Cindy Trumbull, an undecided Republican voter who attended the Friday event in South Carolina, said Fiorina framed the issues just right.

“I was particularly impressed with how she sees dismantling the bureaucracy,” Ms. Trumbull said. “You could tell she’s really thought that through.”

But asked how much gender will figure into her primary vote, Trumbull said, “It doesn’t matter to me what color, what gender, I just want to see the best leader.”

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