Can Fiorina make it to the debates?

If Republicans want to go hard against likely Democratic candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGiuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Sanders hits 1 million donors Democrats will not beat Trump without moderate policy ideas MORE in 2016, Carly Fiorina might be their best messenger. 

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO barely registers in polls, but as the lone female in the likely GOP field, her harsh jabs at the presumptive Democratic nominee have improved her stock in, at the very least, the vice presidential stakes. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“She’s talented and articulate and speaking as a woman, she knocks down a bunch of the nonsense we get from the other team,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist. “She doesn’t have to say ‘I’d be a great vice president;’ people are figuring that out for themselves. And by the way, there’s no reason to start with the silver medal.”

Fiorina gave a rousing speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, ripping into the former secretary of State to the crowd’s delight while outlining her own bona fides.

“Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment,” she said, earning some of the event’s loudest cheers.

The audience’s response was impressive for the little-known failed Senate candidate in California. She drew similar accolades during an Iowa speech in January, too. 

“She was a winner and a standout at the Iowa Freedom Summit, and she continues to impress,” said Citizens United President David Bossie, whose group co-sponsored the Iowa event. “Every week, I see her helping herself. She’s just doing it smartly.”

Many strategists are already including her on potential vice president shortlists, no matter who wins the nomination. She is well connected throughout the GOP, willing to partly self-fund and is showing marked improvement from her failed Senate run.

And for a Republican Party badly in need of diversity, Fiorina’s gender offers her a unique perspective to talk to voters.

“We’re 53 percent of the electorate and it’s important that our party is as diverse as the country we want to represent,” Fiorina said in an email to The Hill. “If you’re a single mom struggling to raise two kids, and Republicans are talking about smaller government and less taxation, you don’t understand what that does for you. In fact, you suspect, if that’s all you hear, you think that hurts you. We don’t finish the sentence for people and that’s what we need to do better.”

She can also deliver harsher attacks against Clinton than some of the men might be able to get away with.

“She has shown how to gracefully but forcefully and factually challenge Mrs. Clinton to a dual,” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway. “She’s demonstrating her ability to pass one major threshold test for Republicans in 2016 — she shows no fear about challenging Mrs. Clinton’s record.”

Fiorina has never held office before, a potential asset in an era when voters are turning away from career politicians. Still, she’s no political neophyte.

She was a prominent surrogate for Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAmerica's newest comedy troupe: House GOP Michelle Malkin knocks Cokie Roberts shortly after her death: 'One of the first guilty culprits of fake news' Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 campaign, and after struggling badly against Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerHillicon Valley: Ocasio-Cortez clashes with former Dem senator over gig worker bill | Software engineer indicted over Capital One breach | Lawmakers push Amazon to remove unsafe products Ocasio-Cortez blasts former Dem senator for helping Lyft fight gig worker bill Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Calif.) on her way to a double-digit loss in 2010, she’s spent much of the past five years working hard within the GOP to build a solid network and sharpen her rhetoric.

“She’s come a long way. ... Where I think she’s improved the most is the ability to connect with people, versus saying ‘here’s my resume,’ ” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

Fiorina was the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s vice chair for fundraising in 2012, has been a regular on the cable news and is involved with many conservative groups including the American Conservative Union, which organized CPAC. That has helped her build upon an already strong fundraising network and allowed her to make dozens of speeches outside the spotlight.

“She’s pitching herself as a self-made businesswoman, not a self-funding candidate this time,” said Conway.

In her CPAC speech, she also showed she was as comfortable discussing foreign policy as fiscal issues, talking up her meetings with foreign leaders before pitching herself as a strong social conservative who had to start from the bottom of the professional world and work her way up. 

She spent the weekend networking with activists and donors, giving interviews and participating in panels on topics as diverse as economic growth, how to handle Russia and the GOP’s response to Democrats’ “war on women” attacks.

“Some other women who may attack Hillary may start to sound like one-note Donnas, but she isn’t that,” said Conway. “At one conference, she demonstrated her breadth of knowledge and opinions and readiness.”

Fiorina has a packed schedule ahead. She’s in Florida this week for events including one addressing the deep-pocketed Republican Jewish Coalition, and she’ll be in Iowa and New Hampshire in the next two weeks. 

A big question for Fiorina — and for the other lesser-known candidates — is whether she can build enough momentum for a spot in the GOP debates.

The Republican National Committee has said there will be minimum thresholds for candidates to even get onstage. 

She’s barely registering in the early states now, and came in ninth in the CPAC straw poll, but observers think it won’t be long before she can catch fire. 

“She’s not a gimmicky person, she’s very serious,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “It’s important for her to do everything she can to get on that debate stage.”