Carly Fiorina speaks during a forum on Capitol Hill in Washington in March. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“I don’t spend a lot of time spent wondering why,” Carly Fiorina tells me in a phone interview about the skepticism and dismissive tone some take toward her candidacy. “I started out as a secretary. I have been underestimated all my life. I’m used to the pattern. I’m used to being underestimated and having to demonstrate competence.” She adds, “My job is to do the best I can, work really hard and connect with people.” She adds that “over time” that formula has worked out.

Fiorina’s critics call her a “failed” chief executive, but, again, over time her tenure can be seen in a different light. Her defenders observe that during her tenure as CEO, Hewlett-Packard’s revenue doubled to nearly $90 billion and growth quadrupled to 9 percent. During her time at HP, the rate of innovation was tripled to 11 patents a day. Between 2004 and 2005, HP added 5,000 patents and was ranked as one of the top 10 patenting companies between 2002 and 2005. HP donated more than $395 million in cash and goods to charities under her watch. Even the merger with Compaq that precipitated her downfall has been judged by many in hindsight to be a success (“fast-forward a decade, and solution providers say the historic merger was a surprising success and ultimately helped their businesses. And the bold move ultimately produced what the two companies promised – a worldwide technology powerhouse with top revenue positions in servers, PC and printers”).

Critics seem unaware of Fiorina’s role as chairwoman of several advisory boards, including the CIA’s External Advisory Board. (Former CIA director Michael Hayden commends her performance.) She learned enough to talk authoritatively about the challenges the CIA faces. “First, I need to add that they get a lot of things right,” she responds when I ask her why the CIA has gotten so many things wrong. “I do think there are realities that the intelligence community — not just our intelligence community — is going through. There is a profound shift which requires cultural, technological and management changes. Everything was a need-to-know. Now there is a need-to-share. That is profound. We’ve gone from trying to predict discrete events to trying to detect general trends.” All of these things suggest a need to alter the technology, the chain of command and the culture of intelligence, she says. (Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has written a new book, has a similar take.) She also says the post-9/11 revamping of the intelligence bureaucracy was not helpful. “I said it then and I say it now, that creating another bureaucracy was a mistake.” On the advisory board, she recalls witnessing a nonstop stream of budgets, memos about processes, hiring uniformity and other bureaucratic efforts. With such a structure, one can imagine it is hard to get things done. “It’s not that people are badly intentioned,” she offers. She does praise the counterterrorism centers the CIA set up where teams from different areas could work collaboratively. “In my first book,” she notes,” that kind of ‘horizontal collaboration’ is most important.” Not bad for someone supposedly unqualified to run for president, is it?

I ask her why growth has been so anemic in this recovery. “It is fashionable for the left to say we need big government to deal with big business. The opposite is true,” she says. “Only big business can survive big government. The answer is less government. The way to [fix the economy] is to level the playing field.” She points to more than 180 new regulations costing $80 billion under the Obama administration. As a result, she says, “There are fewer big businesses and little businesses are getting crushed. That is a structural impediment to growth.” She continues, “You’ve heard me say we now have fewer big banks and fewer community banks, fewer emerging companies, and we are destroying more businesses than we are creating.” She also points to education. “This administration has been very purposeful in eliminating choices — choices in student aid, in K-12 education. When you have fewer choices, the customer suffers.”

Fiorina certainly doesn’t sound like a politician. She did not use the word “conservative” or refer to “the Founders” once. She speaks in directed, clear declarative statements, with virtually no pauses, “ahhs” or “umms” that most politicians get removed from interview transcriptions by friendly media. She does not feign anger or personalize her critiques of government. It is easy to see why she is bemused that people in politics think people in business are not prepared to hold office. “What government gets wrong is how accountable business is because customers have choices, stockholders and investors have choices. The power of choice and accountability has a very positive effect,” she says. In her speeches, she likes to say that facts matter in business and that the numbers speak for themselves. “Choices, transparency and accountability are very powerful,” she says. Unlike politicians, CEOs can’t say one thing when the numbers say something else, she observes.

Why is there a gender wage gap? She identifies a factor few politicians talk about. “I do think with any seniority system women are going to do worse. They come in [to the workforce] later or leave the workplace for a time. If you pay for time and grade women are disadvantaged. It is why I’ve always favored pay for performance.” She says instead of lecturing business, government should set the example by going to a pay-for-performance model. That will work to remove one disadvantage women face.

Is she a feminist? “I think, for me, the definition of a feminist is a woman who gets to choose her own life. If a woman wants to have five kids and home-school, she is a feminist. If a woman wants to be a CEO, she’s a feminist.” She says things got off track when the left started telling women that some choices (e.g. staying home) weren’t acceptable. “That’s not feminism. It’s politics,” she says.

Why have Republicans had such a hard time connecting with women and certain other groups? She recalls her work on the Unlocking Potential group, which organized in five states, trying to get non-voting Republican and independent women back to the ballot box to elect Republicans. “When we talked to them, we’d hear them say: ‘I don’t like the tone. I don’t like the vitriol. I don’t like the soundbites. I want to have a real conversation,’ ” she tells me. “They want the discussion to be civil and respectful. Women do not like it when they feel they are being judged. If they do, they turn off and tune out.” (This by the way, is a similar take to that held by a number of longtime GOP pollsters and analysts, including Whit Ayres, who is working with Sen. Marco Rubio.) She says voters are looking for a “reasonable, dignified, respectful conversation of the issues.” I guess you can see why she might have a hard time adjusting to talking-heads punditry and elections based on ad hominem attacks.

She concludes, “I think all politics is personal. Not only does the tone have to be right, but you have to connect.” So far, she is. Maybe the purveyors of conventional wisdom are underestimating her — again.