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Drew Cline: Carly Fiorina belongs on the primary debate stage

May 27. 2015 9:02PM

CARLY FIORINA, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard who has an 0-1 record running for elective office, is running for President of the United States as a non-politician.

“Our founders never intended for us to have a professional political class,” she said in her campaign announcement video. In interviews and speeches, she criticizes “professional politicians,” as she did during her Politics & Eggs speech in Bedford in February.

But “professional politician” rivals who underestimate this newbie do so at their own peril. She is extremely good at the presidential candidate thing.

In a sit-down interview on Tuesday, Fiorina was impressive even by the standards of Union Leader editorial interviews. Most candidates, seasoned or not, struggle to stay on message. The temptation to stray, to elaborate, to explain is too great. To overcome the impulse, they memorize talking points, after which they sound robotic... then they stray.

Not Fiorina.

Her ability to stay on message without repeating the same worn talking point four times is nothing short of remarkable. She told National Review Online that she learned how to hone a message when a professor at Stanford assigned a book of medieval philosophy every week and required students to condense it into a two-page paper.

Politics is a field dominated by those who excel at communicating, and Fiorina is proving herself a powerful and effective communicator. She does more than turn a nice phrase. (“Nothing makes me angrier than when people’s livelihoods are sacrificed on the altar of ideology.”) She packs more substance into fewer words than anyone else in the 2016 field.

With this ability, Fiorina is selling herself as a competent manager and bold leader. She charmingly calls the administrative apparatus in Washington a “vast, bloated, incompetent bureaucracy.” To fix it, she would implement zero-based budgeting and pay for performance; tackle fraud, waste and abuse; and eliminate jobs of federal employees who retire.

She would “reimagine” the way federal departments work, she said.

Mitt Romney in 2008 struck similar themes as he campaigned on managerial competence. (Obama also wanted to end fraud, waste and abuse, he said.) Romney then struggled when primary voters demanded to know his governing philosophy rather than his management philosophy.

Fiorina, who is more conservative than Romney, could suffer similarly self-inflicted wounds if she does not talk more about her vision for what government should and should not do.

Try to divert her, though, and she skillfully dodges the detour. Every candidate prefers to avoid questions for which he is unprepared or with which he is uncomfortable. Fiorina does so more deftly than most.

Business executives who run for office tend to reveal quickly the gap between the skills needed to succeed in business and the skills needed to succeed in politics. Fiorina does not. She has learned from her mistakes as a surrogate for John McCain in 2008 and a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010. Put her on a political debate stage, and she will shine.

This is why FOX News’ presidential primary debate criteria are terrible. For the August Republican debate, only the top 10 finishers in the most recent national polls will be allowed on stage. Fiorina is unlikely to be among that group.

FOX News has many seasoned political journalists who ought to know that national polls are meaningless that far from a primary. They reflect little more than name ID. The debate criteria effectively negate the value of Iowa and New Hampshire as proving grounds for lesser-known candidates.

To her credit, Fiorina does not complain about the debate rules. She sees them as an obstacle to overcome. She knows she can do that only by campaigning hard and pulling ingenious stunts like her Wednesday news conference outside Hillary Clinton’s hotel in Columbia, S.C. She might make it onto the debate stage through hard work, determination and creative campaigning. If she does not, it will be the Republican Party’s loss.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. You can find him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.

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