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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. It's tough enough to be an incumbent this year, but California's three-term senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, has a challenger unlike any she's faced before.

Her Republican opponent is Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina is making her first run for elective office, and she says her business background is just what's needed in Washington given the economic challenges the country faces. But Fiorina's critics say her performance at Hewlett-Packard is anything but a selling point.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Republican Senatorial Candidate, California): How are you? Nice to see you again.

INA JAFFE: Carly Fiorina is in Beverly Hills, glad-handing her way around a rooftop conference room, greeting about 30 women who are here to show support and ask questions.

Ms. FIORINA: So who wants to jump in and start?

JAFFE: Still very much the executive, Fiorina sits at the head of the table, glamorous in a designer suit, sporting the short, steely hair that's become her trademark since she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. Behind her are two giant posters blasting Barbara Boxer for, quote, "failed leadership."

Ms. FIORINA: When you have people like Barbara Boxer in Washington, D.C. for 28 years, who thinks that all answers are there, how can they possibly know what is going on?

JAFFE: Fiorina says she knows what's going on because of her life experience not just as the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company but as a young law-school dropout trying to figure out what to do with her life.

Ms. FIORINA: I started out typing and filing and answering the phones for a little nine-person firm. And that nine-person firm gave me my chance to find my own way.

JAFFE: After the event, Fiorina said it's her private-sector experience, whether in the typing pool or the corner office, that makes her especially suited to be a United States senator.

Ms. FIORINA: I think it would help tremendously to have a senator that knows where jobs come from, that knows how to create them, that knows how to bring them back and, importantly, knows what it means to manage billions of dollars worth of expenses and cut billions of dollars worth of expenses.

Mr. JEFFREY SONNENFELD (Senior Associate Dean, School of Management, Yale University): What in the devil is she talking about as a virtue in her business leadership?

JAFFE: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean of the School of Management at Yale University. He says Fiorina neglects to mention that she was fired from Hewlett-Packard.

Mr. SONNENFELD: She sliced shareholder wealth in half, massive job loss. Gosh, it's hard to see what's the selling feature in her real-world grounding.

JAFFE: Sonnenfeld's written a book about how failed CEOs re-invent themselves. The first thing most have done, he says, is admit their mistakes, and Fiorina has never done that.

Mr. SONNENFELD: She scapegoated her management. She scapegoated her board. She had complaints about everybody, and it was never her fault.

JAFFE: Whatever pressure Fiorina faced at Hewlett-Packard, running for public office can be much tougher, says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College): You don't really have day-to-day opposition researchers or trackers in the corporate world the way that you do in the political world.

JAFFE: And, when it comes to that, nothing seems to be off limits, like the widely viewed remark Fiorina made while waiting for a TV interview to begin, deriding Barbara Boxer's appearance.

Ms. FIORINA: God, what is that hair?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FIORINA: So yesterday.

Prof. PITNEY: By itself, the incident isn't all that serious.

JAFFE: Says Jack Pitney.

Prof. PITNEY: The thing that Fiorina has to watch for is a repeat of the incident. If people start seeing that this is a pattern, that she makes careless statements over time.

JAFFE: In fact, Fiorina famously made some careless statements during her first foray into politics as a surrogate spokesperson for John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. But the Boxer campaign isn't waiting around for Fiorina to stumble, says Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski.

Ms. ROSE KAPOLCZYNSKI (Campaign Manager for Barbara Boxer): Carly Fiorina has said she's happy to run on her record at Hewlett-Packard, and we're taking her up on that.

JAFFE: So Kapolczynski says you can expect to hear Boxer talking about Fiorina...

Ms. KAPOLCZYNSKI: Laying off workers, shipping jobs overseas while taking extravagant salary and perks for herself.

JAFFE: And then there are the issues. Fiorina and Boxer disagree on just about all of them: health care, the environment, you name it. Fiorina is also opposed to abortion rights, while Boxer is a strong supporter. And that's a position that stood Boxer in good stead in past elections in this left-leaning state, says Kapolczynski.

Ms. KAPOLCZYNSKI: It's been more than three decades since California elected an anti-choice senator, and I don't think it's going to happen again this year.

JAFFE: One factor that won't be an issue in this race: Neither candidate will be able to seek support or be dismissed just because she's a woman.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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