Image: John McCain, Carly Fiorina
Darren Hauck  /  Getty Images file
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain appears with Carly Fiorina, former  CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
updated 3/26/2010 3:02:51 PM ET 2010-03-26T19:02:51

John McCain, feminist hero? While the Arizona senator didn't win the presidency, his campaign is creating quite a political legacy. Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Meghan McCain -- love them or hate them, he helped put them where they are today.

Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, were advisers, fundraisers, and spokeswomen for the McCain campaign and now are running for office in California: Fiorina for Senate, Whitman for governor. Meghan McCain, who burst into the public eye by blogging her dad's campaign, is a writer and emerging spokeswoman for younger, socially moderate Republicans. Palin, meanwhile, is rapidly approaching Reaganesque levels of idolatry among some conservatives.

The former Alaska governor is reuniting with McCain this weekend at two Arizona rallies that are meant to boost him against radio host and former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who is challenging him from the right in the state's Aug. 24 primary. It's only fitting that Palin, with her book, TV gigs, Facebook communiques and fired-up followers, should wield her celebrity on McCain's behalf. She is, after all, the inspiration for the Tea Party movement and hard-line conservatives. If McCain hadn't chosen Palin as his running mate, and given her the platform to encourage candidates like Hayworth, he probably wouldn't be having to defend his right flank.

Palin is now using her outsized personal and political influence to mobilize opponents of the new health care law. "Don't Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!" she exhorted followers this week via Twitter. At Facebook, Palin targeted 20 supporters of health care for defeat and marked their districts on a map with crosshairs. The imagery has triggered Democratic protests and, of course, fundraising. Palin has "set her sights on Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello – literally," Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party chairman, said in one appeal. "She actually posted an image on the Internet that shows a gun sight centered on his district."

While Palin is providing ammunition for Democrats (to continue the weaponry theme), she's also created an opportunity for McCain. He has been all over TV and radio attacking the new law and defending Palin (her language and imagery are "just part of the political lexicon," he said on NBC's Today Show). Both roles can only help him among conservatives wary of his past moderation on issues such as immigration, climate change, and campaign spending limits.

Though she's engaged in the 2010 elections, Palin resigned as Alaska governor and has moved on to other pursuits while leaving unclear whether she plans a future in electoral politics. Fiorina and Whitman have plunged right in, with endorsements from McCain, after their political initiations during his presidential run.

Fiorina in particular had a bumpy ride. In July 2008, she talked about the unfairness of insurance plans that cover Viagra but not birth control, apparently not realizing McCain had voted at least twice against requiring birth control coverage. That led to some embarrassing moments for McCain. Fiorina got into even more trouble when she said on radio and TV that neither McCain nor Palin could run a corporation. McCain reportedly was furious and, in a remark that became an instant classic, a campaign aide told CNN that "Carly will now disappear."

But she didn't. She's now locked in a tight three-way primary race against former congressman Tom Campbell and conservative state assemblyman Chuck DeVore for the chance to take on veteran Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. And she's still having some rough moments, like the time she said her strapped state should keep bankruptcy on the table as an option -- except that states can't declare bankruptcy.

Fiorina is also making a splash with extremely weird videos. In one known as "Demon Sheep," an actor in a sheep costume attacks Campbell -- a former state senator and state finance director -- as a "fiscal conservative in name only." Another surreal entry, called "Hot Air," shows Boxer's head turning into a blimp.

Fiorina, who did not leave HP on ideal terms, describes herself as "a business leader who gets things done," a self-made woman who started as a secretary and became the only woman to date to lead a Fortune 20 company. Her campaign is as personal as it is unconventional. She launched her bid just as her hair was starting to grow back after chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

Whitman is also running as a business leader -- "a seasoned manager of large, complex organizations." She has a less flamboyant style than Fiorina but, like her sister CEO, her lack of political experience occasionally surfaces. This month, for instance, she invited reporters to a campaign event, didn't let them see it, and refused to take any questions afterward. That is obviously not the way to encourage friendly coverage.

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Whether she courts the press or not, Whitman is almost certain to win her primary against insurance commissioner Steve Poizner. She's crushing him in both polls and in spending. A billionaire and self-financed candidate, she has spent a stunning $46 million on the race so far -- more than $27 million of it this year alone on TV ads. She'll likely face Democrat Jerry Brown, the attorney general and former two-term governor.

In both primaries and in the matchup for governor, the two McCain alums are counting on their outsider status to help them. It's unclear if that appeal will work in a state that has been governed for years by an outsider -- actor and businessman Arnold Schwarzenegger -- to no discernible advantage. California voters are beset by unemployment, foreclosures, shrinking services, and disappearing health insurance, and could decide to go with veteran politicians like Campbell in the June 8 primary or Brown in the fall election.

Even so, McCain has certainly jump-started several political careers, with daughter Meghan on the horizon as a possible candidate of the future. Meghan has a book coming out Aug. 31 that, according to Amazon, is entitled Dirty Sexy Politics. I'm sure that will drive sales, though I'm not sure how that relates to her subject, which has been described as the future of progressives in the GOP.

Meghan and her mother, Cindy, have made ads in support of gay marriage, which McCain opposes. Meghan also went on ABC's "The View" to condemn what she called racist remarks by some at the Tea Party convention in Nashville. That would be the same convention at which Palin spoke to an enraptured audience and was crowned, at least metaphorically, queen of the Tea Party.

Where does McCain stand on all this? Meghan clearly has inherited the McCain maverick DNA. Maybe she'll tell us in her book. Here's hoping for that and for her to have a big, interesting role at the 2012 Republican convention.

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