WAUKEE, Iowa — Within seconds of taking the stage in the packed suburban megachurch Saturday night, Carly Fiorina was mocking Hillary Rodham Clinton — and offering herself as a Republican alternative.
Fiorina, a wealthy former corporate chief executive, compared Clinton’s recent visit to the state with her own five-day tour: Clinton traveled 1,200 miles from the East Coast in a luxury van, while she drove 1,222 miles on Iowa roads. Clinton stopped for a Chipotle burrito or a “carefully scripted meeting,” while Fiorina said she talked openly to 2,400 Iowans in 15 cities and towns.
“I have to tell you, I will take Casey’s pizza in a car to Chipotle’s takeout any time,” Fiorina said, referring to the popular chain of Iowa convenience stores that far outnumber Chipotles and are popular gathering spots in tiny towns. “My favorite is sausage, and I prefer to order and eat without my sunglasses on.”
Fiorina is the lone woman in the Republican Party’s vast collection of potential presidential contenders, and while her candidacy would be a long shot, her speech at a summit hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition on Saturday night showed that she’s willing to go much further than most of her male counterparts in criticizing the assumed Democratic front-runner.
“Hillary Clinton must not be president of the United States — but not because she’s a woman,” Fiorina said, inciting some of the most rowdy cheers of the night. “Hillary Clinton cannot be president of the United States because she is not trustworthy. And while she has held many titles, she hasn’t accomplished very much.”
Just in case her intentions were not perfectly clear, Fiorina added: “When the general election rolls around, we better have a nominee who can throw those punches all day long.”
Fiorina is expected to announce her underdog candidacy May 4, the day before the release of her latest book, “Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey.” (Her 2006 memoir was titled “Tough Choices.” Last year, Clinton released her memoir “Hard Choices.”)
Fiorina is rather unknown in Iowa. While other Republicans debate whether former senators or former governors make better presidents, Fiorina has never held elected office, though she unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in California in 2010.
In a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll of likely Republican caucusgoers released in February, Fiorina was in a three-way tie for nearly last place with Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But Indiana Gov. Mike Pence did worse, not registering any support. The poll found that 66 percent of likely caucusgoers didn’t know enough about Fiorina to have an opinion of her.
Fiorina, who lives in the Washington suburbs, has made three trips this year to Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. A five-day trip this past week started at a library in western Iowa and ended at Point of Grace Church in Waukee for a speech-fest. Along the way, aides said that they were surprised to see larger audiences than expected.
“Where did she come from?” said Kim Hiscox of West Des Moines, who attended the church event. “I must be under a rock or something, because tonight is the first time I’ve heard her name. I’m so impressed that maybe the Republicans could put forward a woman to challenge Hillary.”
Fiorina, 60, was chief executive Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, when she was forced to resign. She served as a surrogate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential campaign and challenged Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2010.
“I ran as a proud, pro-life conservative — you don’t do that in California unless you really mean it,” Fiorina said Saturday night. “That race taught me something: Only a conservative can unify this party.”
Fiorina said her husband’s mother had been encouraged by doctors to end her pregnancy for health reasons, but she didn’t, because “she was a woman of great courage and great faith.” She reflected, “I have thought often about how different my own life would have been had she made a different choice.”
Fiorina told the crowd about how she started out as the secretary in a nine-person real estate firm, married a former tow-truck driver and worked her way up to being “the chief executive of the largest technology company in the world.” Wearing a sundress with a cardigan — like many of the women in the audience — Fiorina said she begins each day with prayer, which she said helped her overcome breast cancer in 2009 and cope with the death of her 35-year-old stepdaughter, Lori Ann, “to the demons of addiction.”
Fiorina pitched herself as a leader who understands the struggles of small businesses and working-class families. She bragged about advising government officials and having “met more world leaders on the stage today than virtually anyone else running for president, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton.” Fiorina’s list included Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
And Fiorina wondered aloud why holding public office has become a prerequisite for the presidency. “When did we get used to this notion that only professional politicians could run for office?” she said. “When did we decide that a professional political class was all that we could have? The professional political class has let us down in too many ways.”