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Ex-HP CEO Key To McCain's Team

After running one of Silicon Valley's powerhouse companies for six years, Carly Fiorina now has her sights set on the White House.

Not for her - not yet, at least. But for John McCain.

Fiorina, 53, joined the Republican senator's presidential campaign this spring. She brings with her a long list of wealthy friends and supporters and intimate insight into how some of the largest corporations work, having been at the helm of Hewlett-Packard Co. and before that, senior management at AT&T Inc. and its spinoff Lucent Technologies.

While the new gig is her first in politics, her name already has been tossed around as a possible vice presidential running mate. McCain has said he's not as strong on economics as he is on national security, so he needs accomplished business leaders, like Fiorina, advising him.

But Fiorina's resume isn't without its blemishes, and some observers have been merciless about her performance at HP. They also say her lack of a public policy record will be hard to overcome as she travels the country on behalf of McCain.

"She almost destroyed one of the nation's great corporate treasures - she made a mess of HP, she made it an extraordinarily unpleasant place to work," said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management and longtime critic of Fiorina's. "She represents sizzle over steak and style over substance - that would damage the integrity and credibility of the McCain campaign."

Fiorina became chief executive of Palo Alto-based HP in 1999 after spending nearly two decades at AT&T Inc., where she made a star turn as a fast-rising saleswoman, and Lucent Technologies, where she directed the initial public offering of stock and spinoff from AT&T.

At HP, she was known as a divisive manager, who made sweeping moves to try and wrestle the technology icon into the Internet age.

But she also used charm and diplomacy to push through one of her biggest achievements there: engineering HP's $24 billion acquisition of Compaq Computer. The deal was bitterly contested by descendants of HP's founders but squeaked by 51 percent to 49 percent in a contentious proxy battle.

But Fiorina was pushed out of HP in 2005 over the computer and printer maker's spotty financial performance that hurt the stock - which sank 56 percent on her watch - and impatience by investors who were tired of waiting for her changes to pay off.

Some say Fiorina may have simply been out of her element at HP, as someone whose focus on marketing and branding made her an odd fit in HP's hardcore techie culture.

She drew snickers from some longtime HPers for the company's decision in 2004 to sell HP-branded iPods. The idea was to liven up the company's staid image, but HP abandoned the initiative the following year.

She's always been candid that her background is nontechnical: a Stanford University undergrad in medieval history and philosophy, she went on to earn master's degrees in management from the University of Maryland and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fiorina, uncharacteristically dynamic for a Silicon Valley CEO, was also criticized for her own celebrity appeal, a perception that made her stand out against the low-key images of many other valley chief executives.

Still, supporters say Fiorina has been vindicated by HP's success since her firing. They argue the changes she made ultimately helped a hidebound HP and demonstrated a decisiveness and willingness to take risks that could work to her advantage in politics. They also say her leadership in the Compaq merger showed deft political maneuvering that could foreshadow how she would approach political office.

"There's an inside-the-valley perception (about Fiorina), but those are not necessarily things that would hurt her outside the valley," said Mozelle Thompson, the former commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission who oversaw the agency's antitrust review of HP and Compaq merger.

"To the extent that some people may not view Carly Fiorina as shy and retiring, she would fit in really well in Washington."

She's also a well-known business figure who will help McCain win voters and donors, particularly in deep-pocketed Silicon Valley. McCain has also recruited Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Executive John Chambers and former eBay Inc. Chief Executive Meg Whitman. They are on McCain's national finance committee.

"Carly is in many respects very appealing to the California electorate - it's hard to put her in a box," said Boris Feldman, a partner at the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati law firm who worked with Fiorina on a court case challenging the HP-Compaq merger and has raised money for the McCain campaign.

Fiorina says there are many parallels to politics and running a company. With more than 150,000 employees when Fiorina was fired, running HP could be compared to being mayor of a medium-sized city like Syracuse, N.Y.

"My leadership at HP has been completely validated by the results HP posted the day after I was fired until today," Fiorina said in a recent interview. "Leadership is about making tough choices, and I think I recognize that in others. That's what attracts me to John McCain - he's a leader."

HP recently cracked $100 billion in annual sales for the first time, and has recaptured the title of the world's No. 1 personal computer seller from Dell Inc., an achievement helped by the addition of Compaq and the operational changes made under the new chief executive, Mark Hurd.

"HP hasn't looked so bad since she left - it was a little stain on her reputation in that she wasn't as successful as she wanted to be, but she's still pretty damn successful," said David Brady, professor of political science and leadership values at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"Presidential elections are different from internal battles with the old family (at HP). A lot of time's passed since then. I don't see it as a problem."

Fiorina, who splits her time between her homes in Silicon Valley and Washington with her husband, Frank, is quiet on the topic of her political aspirations.

Right now, Fiorina says her priority is helping get the candidate's message out.

"I remember what it feels like to be a secretary and the challenges of working people," Fiorina said. "I understand how you create jobs, I understand why jobs leave, I understand how business works, I think I understand how the economy works. I think all of those perspectives are valuable."
By Jordan Robertson