With nearly five months to go before the election, the age-old conflict between government and business is already front and center in the California Senate race between former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and three-term incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.
The race is being sculpted as corporate leader vs. career politician, and both sides are hammering away at each other's failures in an effort to highlight their own virtues, whether they be in public service or in the boardroom.
Almost immediately after Fiorina clinched the Republican nomination to oppose Boxer on Tuesday, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, took aim at Fiorina's retirement package from HP.
"Fiorina also brings a record of failure to the race that she will have to answer for," Menendez said in a written statement. "She nearly drove Hewlett-Packard into the ground, laying off 32,000 workers and outsourcing many jobs, but still collected a $42 million golden parachute.
Boxer reprised the attack Wednesday, saying Fiorina chose to live a life not of public service, but of owning yachts.
Fiorina didn't waste any time, either, going on the attack against Boxer in her victory speech.
"In her 28 years of being a career politician in Washington, D.C., Barbara Boxer has been a bitter partisan who has said much but accomplished little," Fiorina said. "She may get an A for politics, but she gets an F for achievement."
Fiorina campaign spokeswoman Amy Thoma added that Boxer should be worrying more about her "record of failure" than Fiorina's "record of success."
"Barbara Boxer has voted for more than a trillion (dollars) in tax increases, supported policies that have expanded government and at the same time stifled real job creation throughout her 34 years as politician," Thoma said in a written statement, adding that Boxer's vote for President Obama's stimulus package didn't prevent California from losing hundreds of thousands of jobs.
"Compare that to Carly's record at HP where she steered it through the dotcom bust and the worst technology recession in 25 years," Thoma wrote. "During her tenure, HP's revenues doubled, from $44 billion to $88 billion, with improved profitability in every product category. Today, HP is the largest technology company in the world."
But Boxer's campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, says the senator will be happy to take up Fiorina's leadership as an issue in the election.
"The only reason Carly Fiorina is a serious candidate is her short stint as CEO of HP and the millions she made while she was there," Kapolczynski said. "Fiorina has said 'I'm proud to run on my record at HP,' and we're taking her up on that."
As California copes with high unemployment and a fiscal crisis, voters will have to decide whether a wealthy businesswoman or an experienced lawmaker is better qualified to create jobs and raise revenues, a choice that echoes the broader question of whether the government or private businesses should be the primary source of new jobs.
"Everything depends on where the country is as the fall wears on," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at University of Southern California and an expert on campaigns and elections. "It depends on whether or not each of the candidates can make her case."
Fiorina, 55, ran Hewlett-Packard for more than five years before she was forced out by the company's board of directors in early 2005. Board members blamed her for failing to slash costs and boost revenue as quickly as directors had hoped.
Since Boxer was elected to the Senate 18 years ago, she has faced little competition. But an anti-incumbent wave sweeping the country makes her vulnerable as she consistently polls below 50 percent. Still, California is a decidedly Democratic state.
Boxer has also rubbed some the wrong way with her prickly behavior; last year she scolded an Army brigadier general for addressing her as "ma'am," instead of as "senator."
Now the businesswoman and the senator are moving quickly to define each other as the narrative of the race takes shape.
On her campaign website, Boxer devotes an entire section -- "Perks and Pink Slips" -- to Fiorina's corporate record, noting that her opponent was given a $21 million cash buyout when she was fired in 2005 and bought a $3.6 million condo in Washington that same year.
Fiorina's campaign has created a blog, www.FailedSenator.com, that promises to highlight Boxer's "failure on the behalf of the nation and of California" and invites state residents to "share the ways in which Barbara Boxer has failed them."
Jeffe said the business vs. politician debate will be one theme of the race, but not the only one.
"The reality is in California, registration favors Democrats, so how is that going to play in the general election?" she said. "I think that Fiorina, because she is a Republican, because she is pro-life in a state that is still pro-choice, that may not be the strongest argument she can make."
But if unemployment continues to rise, "it's going to be a danger for Barbara Boxer," Jeffe said.
"The election is always a referendum on incumbents," she said. "It depends on who makes the better case and how lucky the incumbent is with how the world is going."