Carly Fiorina downplays her insider credentials on the trail

Story highlights

  • Fiorina has touted her HP experience
  • She was an adviser to John McCain and fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee
  • Has never held elected office; lost California Senate race in 2010

Lexington, South Carolina (CNN)In Carly Fiorina's telling, the only times she's been in Washington have been when she's fighting it.

Standing in a jam-packed open-air smoke shed here outside Columbia on Wednesday, the surging Republican presidential candidate once again blasted the "professional political class" and the lawyers, lobbyists and special interests that cater to it. Her stump speech highlights her private sector career -- starting as a secretary and ending up as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard -- that voters here rave makes her an appealing candidate in this season of outsiders.
But what Fiorina rarely mentions are her ties to that same establishment that she now castigates. A resident of Mason Neck, Virginia, just over 20 miles from the White House, Fiorina has served as a high-powered fundraiser and adviser to the Republican Party's more moderate big-money machine over the past decade.
    That resume may conflict with her outsider message, but her voice is still welcome to voters seeking change.
    "Everyone wants someone that's not a Bush or Clinton. But she's a breath of fresh air," said Shelli Simontacchi, a 43-year-old paralegal who came to hear her in the city of Rock Hill and is excited about voting for a strong woman. "I don't consider her old Washington money."
    Interviews with two dozen voters here reveal that few supporters are aware of her career beyond HP -- and only some said they felt it undermined her pitch as a genuine outsider. But as Fiorina races to frame her story in the wake of a breakout debate performance, she very well could be tested by curious voters about how to square those years with her fiery anti-Washington rhetoric.
    "She's a sort of insider's outsider," influential conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru told CNN. "To the extent that there is any plausibility that she's an outsider, it's because she tried and failed to be an insider."

    Connections to establishment Republicans

    Fiorina's resume after her departure from HP looks like that of a conventional Washington powerbroker: She served as a senior economic adviser to moderate Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. After her failed Senate bid in California, she was named to a senior finance post at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a frequent nemesis of grassroots Tea Party groups, who see the powerful party organization as unduly meddling in local GOP primaries. And she sat on advisory boards for the Central Intelligence Agency and the American Conservative Union, giving her access to some of Washington's most powerful corridors.
    People close to Fiorina stress that while she's as well-connected as any businesswoman might be, she has always harbored some frustration toward what she sees as public incompetence. Fiorina herself relies on the simpler point that she hasn't served in government.
    "As a citizen, I was involved in government, as I think all citizens should be," Fiorina told reporters after filing for the state's primary in Columbia when asked whether her Washington tenure undermined her appeal. "But there's no doubt I'm an outsider. I've never held elected office."
    Ironically, in a year where establishment connections are so reviled, rival GOP campaigns are focusing on attacking Fiorina's HP record rather than highlighting her Washington links. It's a line of attack that worked against Fiorina in 2010. Running as the business-friendly candidate in a crowded California primary, Fiorina won the Republican nomination for Senate -- but then was soundly defeated by Barbara Boxer, the powerful incumbent Democrat.
    Laura Hudson, who hosted Fiorina here at her barbecue restaurant, said that loss helped maintain her outsider credibility despite her time aiding top Republicans.
    "Is that part of the bureaucracy in Washington? No," Hudson said. "That's not the same as being a senator or House member that's served on all these committees and that has been employed for the federal government forever and ever."

    Emphasizing her personal story

    Standing in front of banners with the word "outsider" emblazoned front-and-center, Fiorina only delved into her government links when a few well-informed voters asked about her security clearances at the CIA or when expressing frustration with Republican leadership.
    Fiorina shares her personal story as a series of triumphs over tragedy: beating cancer, burying a child and surviving a nasty firing from HP. Stylizing herself as a tax-hating, dollar-pinching corporate leader who started as a secretary, she speaks of a Washington as a foreign land that she intellectually understands but hasn't grappled with personally.
    "Our government has become one giant, bloated, inept, corrupt bureaucracy and only someone who understands a bureaucracy -- and I do -- can cut it down to size," Fiorina said here.
    That detachment doesn't quite jive with her very up-close, hands-on engagement with the Washington political structure. Her "instincts are very establishment oriented," Ponnuru argued.
    At HP, Fiorina would visit lawmakers at the Capitol a few times each year, hobnobbing at social events like the White House Correspondents Dinner and the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner and once meeting with Hillary Clinton, according to a person with knowledge of Fiorina's activities. She lobbied alongside Washington denizens like Ed Gillespie and Jack Quinn.
    When McCain launched his second presidential bid in 2007, Fiorina joined its inner circle, McCain aides said, and helped him raise money. Fiorina advised the longtime senator on economic policy and spoke on his behalf on business issues. And then after her own Senate run, the NRSC named her as a vice chair to tap into her fundraising network and helped the group raise more than $100 million.
    Those are experiences that nearly every voter in South Carolina interviewed said they knew little about. At the rallies they see, Fiorina disagrees with points that might be entertained by more anti-establishment candidates: She doesn't agree with Ben Carson that America cannot elect a Muslim president, and she doesn't think a government shutdown could lead to anarchy, she told an audience in Rock Hill.
    Steve Lambeth, a retired businessman in Greenville who just switched from backing Carson to Fiorina after her debates, said he wasn't familiar with Fiorina's non-HP background, but now sees it as an asset.
    "Dr. Ben, one of the challenges he's had, is a complete disconnection from Washington," he said, praising the Beltway years as showing her "political savvy." "I don't see her ties as being handcuffing."
    And to allies like Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who led McCain's campaign, it's impossible for any leader to be completely foreign to Washington.
    "This notion that what qualifies you as a Washington outsider is marching from the hinterlands," he said, "is a nice thought, but it's not reality based."