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Fiorina Has Much to Prove in California Race

As her Senate campaign finally gears up in earnest, Carly Fiorina has a lot to prove.

That’s the consensus among Republican strategists and political observers in California, who say that despite a rocky few months for the Hewlett-Packard CEO turned GOP Senate candidate, it is too early to tell how strong her bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) will be.

The big test, they say, will come in the next several months — the stretch from her campaign launch Nov. 4 to the state Republican convention in mid-March.

“Fiorina has the potential to be the most formidable opponent that Boxer’s ever faced. The key word there is potential,— said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a former Republican political strategist.

Signs of how successful she is at realizing that potential include, first and foremost, her January fundraising report, a crucial benchmark in a race that is expected to cost $30 million or more. In addition, strategists said Fiorina needs to quickly draw a diverse coalition of backers beyond just the business community.

Lastly, they will be watching to see how well she is able to enunciate a clear message about what she would do in office and “give voters a really clear choice— versus Boxer, Republican strategist Bob Shuman said.

Democrats and conservative Republicans have pounced on a series of early missteps and negative headlines during the exploratory phase of Fiorina’s campaign in an effort to paint her as not ready for prime time. “Given how well her debut went in the exploratory campaign, the entire campaign should be as entertaining,— said Eric Schultz, communications director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

There were the flurry of stories in August about her poor voting record and the campaign’s changing account of when and where she voted, the roundly mocked launch of the beta version of her Web site in September, and questions about her business practices and leadership both during her stormy tenure at HP and afterward. The campaign has rebutted a number of the attacks, but questions surrounding her voting record and particularly her time at HP are expected to be major issues in the campaign.

All the while, Fiorina was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer, which she just wrapped up last month. Her stepdaughter died suddenly in October, as well.

“For very understandable reasons, she’s been in somewhat of a political limbo the last several months,— Schnur said. “As the campaign moves forward, the dialogue is necessarily going to become more balanced.—

Voters, however, are not paying much attention to any of it right now. A USC-Los Angeles Times poll released Nov. 7 found that just 29 percent of California voters could identify Carly Fiorina, and just 19 percent knew her GOP primary opponent, Chuck DeVore.

“What most voters will know for the most part will be what the paid advertising says,— said political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book on state elections.

Hence the need for candidates to raise copious amounts of money.

Fiorina created a bit of a stir this fall when her campaign said she does not intend to entirely self-fund her campaign. Spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said Fiorina will, in fact, “invest in her campaign,— but not to the tune of Meg Whitman (R), the former eBay CEO who has discussed spending as much as $150 million on her 2010 gubernatorial bid in the state. Soderlund said Fiorina will also “actively seek the support of a broad base of donors.—

Fiorina has started by tapping her business connections to assemble a roster of big-dollar donors. She rolled out the 60 initial members of her “campaign leadership team,— which reads like a who’s who of California’s professional elite. It includes nine individuals or couples who bundled at least $50,000 for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.

She attended a fundraiser Tuesday in Washington, D.C., hosted by another batch of McCain bundlers — Judy and Charlie Black, Kirk Blalock, Frank and Becki Donatelli and Fred Malek — as well as other D.C. heavyweights such as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Business Roundtable President John Castellani.

“From what I’m hearing from the donor community, she’s been very well-received,— said Tim Clark, a veteran Republican campaign consultant in California.

Clark also predicted that despite Fiorina’s initial resistance to spend large sums of her own money, “at the end of the day, if she’s in this thing … if she gains momentum, she’s going to have a hard time not putting some of her money in.—

Fiorina’s fundraising capacity is one of the major reasons she is viewed as the favorite in the June 8 Republican primary against DeVore, despite the fact that the two are tied in the USC-Times poll at 27 percent. Her self-funding capability is also why strategists in Washington like her chances against Boxer better.

DeVore, a third-term state Assemblyman from Orange County, is mounting a dark-horse conservative bid. But despite campaigning for a full year, he had raised just more than $700,000 through the end of September. And he had a high burn rate, ending the period with just $145,000 in cash on hand and $88,000 in debt.

DeVore spokesman Joshua Trevino said there is “no question— the campaign needs to raise money to be competitive, but it’s not “the most important metric.—

“California is littered with the political corpses of well-funded multimillionaire candidates who outspend their opponents by orders of magnitude and lose by orders of magnitude,— Trevino noted.

He said the campaign was putting a big chunk of its donations back into what he promised will be “a gold standard list for political fundraising on the Republican side.—

Observers say the DeVore campaign could also potentially capitalize on its high-profile online presence, particularly among right-wing bloggers. “Because of blogs, because of talk radio, because of [Rush] Limbaugh and Fox News, who knows how much free publicity DeVore can get,— Hoffenblum said.

To pre-empt any sort of grass-roots insurgency, strategists said, Fiorina needs to obtain the early backing of some credible conservatives. Clark said he will be watching to see if she is able to “put together a broad base of endorsements— to “signal a consolidation— behind her campaign.

DeVore has nabbed nearly all the GOP members of the state Assembly and half the Republican state Senators. He is also touting the endorsement of conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.).

Fiorina has begun courting the conservative blogosphere to a mixed reception. The party establishment has been quicker to embrace her: The day after her campaign launch, she announced the endorsements of eight prominent GOP Senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and staunchly conservative Sen. Tom Coburn. On Wednesday, she received the backing of Oklahoma’s other Senator, James Inhofe (R).

Even as Fiorina is guarding her right flank, she also has to begin laying out her rationale for ousting Boxer, which even the most optimistic of Republicans believes will be an uphill climb.

Her campaign has already launched a Web site and Web ads criticizing the three-term Senator’s record. But to have any shot against Boxer, a wily politician and tireless campaigner, Fiorina also has to create a positive and detailed agenda that resonates with voters, particularly independents.

“Her biggest challenge going forward is to fill in some of the blanks,— Schnur said. “Voters need to know not just what she believes but what she intends to accomplish if she’s elected.—