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A Few Things to Know About Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina for Tonight's Republican Debate

Don't look now, but the former HP CEO is the only candidate who seems able to stand up to Donald Trump.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News

There are still 60 weeks to go before voters in the U.S. head to the polls to decide who their next president will be, yet already the 2016 race for the White House is turning out to be an interesting one with numerous subplots and narrative twists.

One of these has involved the former CEO of computing giant Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, once considered a political neophyte running a vanity campaign with poll numbers in the basement.

No more. She was the only candidate to stand out in the so-called “kids’ table debate” held by Fox News last month, and as her poll numbers rose, she prevailed upon CNN to include her on the main stage of its debate, which will air on that network tonight at 5 pm PT/8 pm ET.

That was interesting. But not nearly as interesting as her fight with Republican front-runner Donald Trump. The spark was a Trump interview with Rolling Stone in which, while watching a Fiorina video, he declared, “Look at that face! … Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”

It turned out that Trump’s blatantly sexist and now second-most infamous campaign insult (No. 1 still has to be the one about Mexican people) may have turned out to be the best favor he could have done for Fiorina’s campaign. A video ad put out by her Super PAC was so pitch-perfect that she now holds the unique distinction of being the only candidate yet to rattle The Donald with a political counterpunch. (See the ad below.)

If she performs well in tonight’s debate, it will mean that the Fiorina campaign will have to be taken more seriously, which will in turn reignite scrutiny of her record as an executive not just at HP, where was CEO from mid-1999 to early 2005, but also at Lucent Technologies. Here’s a guide to some of her career highs and lows:

Fiorina is best remembered for HP’s $20 billion takeover of Compaq. Proposed in 2001, the deal was intended to vault HP over a then-seemingly unstoppable Dell to the top of the global market for PCs. By that measure, her plan worked, but HP went on to fire about 15,000 employees, earning her the unkind moniker “Carly Scissorhands.”

The acquisition didn’t work out. PC demand turned south amid a global recession brought on by 9/11, the dot-com bubble and the telecom crash. HP missed its earnings estimates a few times in 2004, and by early 2005 Fiorina had resigned under pressure from the board.

Fiorina is also remembered for another deal she walked away from. In the fall of 2000, HP came close to paying $18 billion for PricewaterhouseCoopers, the huge tech consulting firm, but walked away citing “poor market conditions.” Less than two years later, IBM scooped up PwC for a fraction of that price — $3.5 billion — and made it the keystone of an IT services business that, for a time, ran circles around HP.

Fiorina briefly got HP into the business of selling iPods. Yes, Apple iPods. In one of the more bizarre episodes of her time at HP, Fiorina held up an Apple iPod during a keynote at the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. HP had nothing to do with the iPod, it simply helped Apple sell more of them and gave Fiorina a valuable photo opp (see above). HP never disclosed how many iPods it sold; it had unwound the deal by the fall of 2005. Ex-HP employees remember the fiasco as a headline-grabbing money-loser.

Before landing at HP, Fiorina caught the business world’s attention at Lucent Technologies. As Re/code explained last month, Fiorina was Lucent’s president and head of its sales team. She was knee-deep in many of Lucent’s numerous and ill-conceived loans to customers. By 2002, three years after Fiorina left for HP, Lucent had emerged as one of the enablers of the telecom crash: Several companies went bankrupt in a trillion-dollar financial meltdown that made the overlapping dot-com meltdown seem like a picnic.

Fiorina’s first foray into politics didn’t go well. In 2008, she raised money and served as an adviser to Sen. John McCain when he was running for president, and was a frequent TV spokesperson for his campaign. In one ill-advised moment of on-air candor, she suggested that neither McCain nor his running mate, Sarah Palin, was qualified to run a major corporation. The campaign dumped her in response.

In 2009, Fiorina survived breast cancer; a year later, she ran for U.S. Senate. After a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, she famously said that her rival, Sen. Barbara Boxer, “just doesn’t seem scary anymore.” She lost that race, but 42 percent of Californians voted for her.

Fiorina is rising in the polls. Make no mistake, the Fiorina campaign has all the signs of having hit its stride. A new CBS/New York Times poll released Tuesday showed her campaign gaining steam among Republican voters. With effectively no support a month ago, Fiorina has the support of about 4 percent of GOP voters, which compared to Trump’s 27 percent isn’t much, but within reach of traditional establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Fiorina’s campaign hasn’t raised much money. As of June 30, Federal Election Commission filings showed her campaign had raised less than $2 million and her Super PAC had raised only $3.5 million, pocket change compared to most of the presidential field in either party. That’s likely to increase as her standing in the polls and debate performance wins over more donors.

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