Women leading state's GOP a study in contrasts

LOS ANGELES — In the months ahead, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina inevitably will be linked as the two wealthy, high-powered businesswomen who are trying to lead Republicans to victory in one of the nation's most left-leaning states.

Both are corporate trailblazers from the generation that shattered many glass ceilings and brought newcomers to the political scene.

Yet they could not be more different in their styles and approaches to business and politics.

By her own admission, Whitman leans toward the frumpy and has never been much for fashion, but she doesn't care. She's willing to work hard and get the job done, skills she says were fundamental to her success at transforming a start-up named eBay into a global powerhouse.

Her philosophy, as outlined in her recent autobiography, "The Power of Many," is that successful leaders rely on a strong network of driven employees. No woman can do it alone. She says that's the type of hands-on approach in the governor's office that California needs to pull itself out of its perpetual budget mess, drawing a contrast to the more freewheeling style of her Democratic opponent, former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Fiorina was a self-promoting chief executive whose sometimes abrasive style rubbed many people the wrong way at old-school Silicon Valley icon Hewlett-Packard Co. She says her opponent, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, has become part of the entrenched Washington, D.C., establishment and that her sharp-elbowed approach would shake things up in Congress.

Whitman's idea of a great day is going fishing with her family.

Fiorina likes to spend time on her yacht.

Their differing styles were never more evident than on election day.

Whitman held no public events until an evening rally, having quietly voted days earlier to avoid the spotlight and the inevitable reminders about her spotty voting record. Fiorina, who also has a poor record of civic participation, pulled up to her polling place with her husband in a red Corvette, surrounded by photographers.

Fiorina appears to love the limelight. She wowed the Republican faithful at the state party's spring convention, appearing on a stage set up for her in the middle of the audience in a red-hot skirt suit surrounded by dozens of young supporters in matching red T-shirts. Without referring to notes, she nailed a long speech in which she drew applause while skewering Boxer, a liberal who is reviled by conservatives.

Visiting with poll workers on the final weekend before election day, Fiorina burst into a phone bank full of supporters, decked out in a fashionable, pale-green leather jacket and bounded from table to table chatting with volunteers.

Neither is afraid to spend freely in her pursuit of public office. Fiorina has loaned her campaign $5.5 million of the $6.7 million she has spent, and Whitman, a billionaire, spent an eye-popping $81 million on her primary bid, all but $10 million of it from her fortune.

Fiorina's wealth derives largely from her $21 million buyout when she was fired by Hewlett-Packard's board in 2005.

The differences between the two go beyond frumpy vs. flamboyant.

Their real-world styles in running a business say a lot about how they might approach their roles in public service, if they win in November.

Whitman is hands-on, analytical and focused on results. By all accounts, Fiorina puts a premium on bold moves and public perception.

Whitman was generally liked and respected during her 10 years heading eBay and has many former staff members on her campaign payroll.

One of the blemishes on her record was her 2005 decision to acquire Skype, a deal that was undone earlier this year when eBay sold the Internet communications service after losing more than $1 billion.

EBay's founder, Pierre Omidyar, continues to support her.

Fiorina was fired from her post at HP after six years that were so tumultuous at least three books were written about her tenure, including her best-selling memoir. Her time running HP has created plenty of fodder for her detractors, who describe her leadership style as divisive.

The granddaughter of one of the company's founders wrote a column in which she accused Fiorina of almost destroying the company. She endorsed one of Fiorina's primary opponents.

Those business styles appear to have translated to the campaign trail, where Whitman maintains tight control of her appearances and her availability to the media but Fiorina is more outgoing and willing to improvise.

Each delivered a speech Wednesday morning to cheering supporters at a California Republican Party news conference in Anaheim.

Afterward, Whitman's campaign team kept reporters waiting about 20 minutes while it set up a special stage for her question-and-answer session, complete with a new backdrop and TV lighting.

By contrast, Fiorina bounded immediately over to reporters shouting questions, engaging them in an impromptu back-and-forth.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star