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Risky Business

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The waiters were still clearing the breakfast dishes yesterday when John McCain's most prominent adviser raised the subject of erection enhancement.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief who is now the Republican National Committee's "Victory Chairman," was discussing consumer-driven health insurance at a breakfast with reporters when she proposed "a real, live example which I've been hearing a lot about from women: There are many health insurance plans that will cover Viagra but won't cover birth-control medication. Those women would like a choice." For effect, the woman frequently mentioned as a possible McCain running mate repeated: "Those women would like a choice."

Silence filled the meeting room at the St. Regis Hotel. "I don't know where I go after that," said the moderator, Dave Cook of the Christian Science Monitor.

Fiorina's brazen breakfast talk demonstrated why she'd be such a risky running mate for McCain -- and yet also, potentially, the most rewarding of his options. She's the most prominent and visible of the women believed to be under consideration for the vice presidency, and her attributes are many: a woman who could appeal to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters; a corporate hotshot to balance the "economy-is-not-my-strong-suit" McCain; and an outsider untainted by President Bush, Washington and politics.

At the same time, she's unvetted and untested, as her breakfast conversation demonstrated anew (religious conservatives frown on Viagra-and-contraceptives talk) that she's new to the game. Her controversial tenure at HP, which fired her in 2005, could also be mined by foes. "Too risky," political handicapper Stu Rothenberg judged in Roll Call last week.

In the end, it could come down to whether McCain, now trailing Barack Obama by half a dozen points in the polls, decides he needs to roll the dice.

Fiorina, for her part, couldn't be any more plain about her vice presidential ambitions without taking out an ad. "I've been advocating on his behalf for about a year," she told the 30 reporters at the breakfast after USA Today's Susan Page asked the running-mate question. "I've spent the last three-plus years getting involved in a variety of issues in a variety of government departments, whether it's the Defense Department or the Central Intelligence Agency or the State Department. . . . There are things that government can borrow and learn from business."

Another reporter, who must have been in the men's room for the answer to Page's question, asked Fiorina if she would consider the vice presidency. "One of the great things about my life right now is I have lots of options and lots of opportunities," she said, "and I have learned that if you're open to options and opportunities, the future tends to take care of itself."

Barely an answer went by without a reference to her past in the executive suite. McCain's staff shake-up? "As someone who's managed a lot of people, one of the most important jobs you have is to put the right players on the field in the right positions," she said. Obama's superior fundraising? "I'm a business person. Trends matter to me, and the trendline for Barack Obama is down." McCain's plan to control big executive payouts? "I voluntarily gave up the contract that I was given when I arrived at Hewlett-Packard so my pay could be put to a shareholder vote."

These are delicate matters for Fiorina. When she was forced out at HP, it was because her acquisition of Compaq was going badly and the company's stock price had fallen. Fiorina still managed to leave with an eight-figure severance package. That, and the job cuts she ordered, wouldn't look good in a political ad. But now HP has passed Dell as the No. 1 laptop maker, and the Compaq merger has become a success. Fiorina has published her memoirs, appeared opposite both Bob Schieffer and George Stephanopoulos, and convinced the conservative magazine Human Events that having her as the vice presidential nominee could be "a significant step in the right direction."

Fiorina arrived early for her breakfast meeting with reporters, giving Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times the chance to get some laptop advice. Tall and fashionable in a jacket popping with green and yellow spheres, Fiorina wore a heavy Gothic cross on a long chain around her neck. Moderator Cook cited her various credentials: first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company, degrees from Stanford and MIT, and junior high in London at the "Channing School for Select Young Ladies."

The former chief executive seemed comfortable at the boardroom-type table, resting her cheek on her fist as she listened to questions and leaning forward, elbows on table, to answer. Like McCain, she broke from Republican orthodoxy, talking up the need to fight climate change and asserting that Bush was "wrong" about Iraq before McCain talked him into the surge. Best of all, Fiorina seemed always to have a bit of corporate jargon to fill any hole reporters found in McCain's candidacy. On his multiple staff restructurings: "Like a start-up company becoming a multimillion-dollar corporation, you have to add new skills and capabilities." On McCain's budget plan: "Business does that all the time."

The aspiring politician was easily tripped up while challenging Obama's tax plan and defending McCain's health-care policy. The questions about her political ambitions caused her to fiddle with her watchband and utter a forced chuckle. Then there was the Viagra moment.

But these were minor defects for this product of the "Channing School for Select Young Ladies." In her marketing campaign for a spot on McCain's ticket, Fiorina is meeting benchmarks, her processes are within tolerance, and her business plan remains on course.

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