The public face of John McCain's campaign on the economy disappeared from public view yesterday after she queried whether he and his running-mate, Sarah Palin, were capable of leading a large US corporation.
Carly Fiorina, who climbed her way to the top of the corporate ladder as the chief executive officer at the technology giant Hewlett-Packard, made her remarks in a radio interview. Yesterday, her planned television appearances were abruptly cancelled. The gaffe was particularly embarrassing because they came from a businesswoman brought in to provide ballast to a candidate who admits that the economy is not his strong point.
Mr McCain has been racing to keep up with the turmoil in the US economy. The Republican candidate was wrong-footed by the $85bn (£47bn) government bailout of AIG, the world's biggest insurance company, as he was forced to declare his support for an action that only hours earlier he had opposed.
He abandoned his former stance to say the intervention was needed to protect the livelihoods of millions of Americans. The bailout was necessary because of "failed regulation, reckless management and a casino culture on Wall Street that has crippled one of the most important companies in America," he said. The crisis on Wall Street has helped his rival, Barack Obama, get back on the offensive as he sought to remind voters that Mr McCain was a supporter of the discredited Republican philosophy for financial deregulation.
Ms Fiorina's problems began after a sympathetic radio host heaped flattery on her business record – she rose from a secretarial position to run Hewlett-Packard, before being pushed out – before saying Senator McCain "thinks [Mrs Palin] has the experience to be president".
He then continued: "Do you think she has the experience to run a major company like Hewlett-Packard?" Ms Fiorina replied: "No, I don't. That's not what she is running for." Later, on television, Ms Fiorina was asked about her comment and said: "Well, I don't think John McCain could run a major corporation."
The one-time Fortune magazine "most powerful woman in business" added others to her list of people incapable of running Hewlett-Packard. First among them was Mr Obama, along with his Democratic running mate, Joseph Biden, but the damage was already done.
The former CEO has attracted frequent criticism on the campaign trail by offering positions on abortion and birth control at odds with the candidates'.
The row comes as Mr McCain's brief lead in the opinion polls after surprising everyone with his choice of Mrs Palin disappeared. Polls published yesterday showed the contest was tied. He won the Republican nomination by highlighting his national security credentials, at a time when the economy was not the dominant electoral issue.
The Obama campaign charged that: "If John McCain's top economic adviser doesn't think he can run a corporation, how on earth can he run the largest economy in the world in the midst of a financial crisis?"
Mr McCain has plenty of opportunities to get his message straight in the coming weeks and the give-and-take of one day's sparring is unlikely to make a difference. Far more troubling for his campaign has been the reluctance of conservative columnists to rally around his choice of running mate. The big guns of respected right-wing opinion, Charles Krauthammer, George Will and David Brooks, have all come out against her.
"Sarah Palin has many virtues," Mr Brooks wrote in The New York Times. "But the constructive act of governance is another matter. She has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President [George] Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness."
Krauthammer complained that instead of making the election a referendum on Mr Obama as the least experienced, least prepared presidential nominee in living memory, he had "fatally" undermined his entire line of attack. "The vice-president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates," he argued.
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