"She's smart, she's hardworking, she's giving it all she's got," Carly Fiorina tells PEOPLE of opponent Hillary Clinton

By Tierney McAfee and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated September 23, 2015 07:00 AM
Credit: Scott Olson/Getty; Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty

Carly Fiorina has said that women “are not a special interest group,” but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel a certain kinship with her fellow females – even her Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

“I feel empathy with every woman who is working really hard and giving it all they’ve got – and Hillary is,” the GOP presidential hopeful tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “She’s smart, she’s hardworking, she’s giving it all she’s got.”

Clinton, 67, and Fiorina, 61, first met when the former Hewlett-Packard CEO gave the commencement speech at Stanford University in 2001, the same year Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, graduated.

Fiorina said in a 2008 interview with MORE magazine that she’d been to Clinton’s office “to talk about various issues,” adding that the former secretary of state even asked Fiorina for her support early on in her first presidential campaign.

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Though Fiorina declined for obvious reasons, she told MORE at the time, “I have enormous admiration for Hillary Clinton. And I felt empathy for her” after she had an “incredibly grueling several weeks” on the campaign trail.

Fiorina tells PEOPLE she stands by those comments and still feels that “enormous admiration.”

These days the two women’s political differences are even more at the forefront, but even though Fiorina has been critical of Clinton in her campaign, she says she’d never take a low blow against her Democratic counterpart.

“We as women, especially in presidential politics, need to play by the same rules as the men. If we want to play this game as equals, we need to play by the same rules, and that means our track record is relevant,” Fiorina explains. “And so I never make a personal comment about Hillary Clinton – my criticism of her is fact-based, based on her actions and track record. And that is fair game.”

Among that fair game: Fiorina mocked Clinton in April after she stopped in a Chipotle and ordered her burrito bowl while wearing sunglasses. “I prefer to order and eat without my sunglasses on,” Fiorina told Iowa churchgoers at the time.

As for Clinton’s record, Fiorina took aim during Wednesday’s Republican debate where she said: “If you want to stump a Democrat, ask them about Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments as Secretary of State.”

A seemingly nonplussed Clinton shot back in a CNN interview the following day that she was “very proud” of her long list of achievements.

One of the biggest issues Clinton and Fiorina disagree on is Planned Parenthood. Fiorina called out Clinton specifically when discussing the undercover Planned Parenthood videos during the GOP debate, saying, “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

Clinton in turn accused Republicans of making “misleading, inaccurate allegations” about the Planned Parenthood videos during the debate, though she did not mention Fiorina by name.

“To shut down the government, which some Republicans are advocating, over funding for Planned Parenthood, which takes care of millions of women’s health needs, is just the height of irresponsibility,” Clinton said in an interview on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Fiorina says some Democrats “don’t always play [fair] so people have made very personal comments about me.”

“I think there are many, many Democrats who find it impossible to admire a woman that they politically disagree with,” the former business executive tells PEOPLE. “So when you have Democrats saying my candidacy is offensive to women, that’s about politics. That’s not about an admiration of a fellow woman. That’s not about kinship. And I think that’s too bad.”

“I don’t have to agree with someone politically to admire them,” she adds. “I have empathy for any woman who gives it her all and works hard.”

For much more on Fiorina, pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday