Ted Cruz talks a lot about conservative leadership but there was nothing conservative about his desperate gambit naming Carly Fiorina as his running mate less than 24 hours after he was mathematically eliminated from winning the Republican nomination.
Trailing Donald Trump by more than 400 delegates after suffering a string of defeats in the Northeast in which he failed to crack 25 percent anywhere, Cruz reached for the biggest tool available to a flagging presidential candidate: naming a vice president.
In tapping Fiorina, the Cruz campaign hopes to shake up a hardening political narrative of Trump’s inevitability, to stem the bleeding after six straight losses, and to lift his fortunes in the coming key contests of Indiana, where the surprise announcement was held, and California, where Fiorina first planted her political roots.
It was a bid for a game changing moment — and a not-so-tacit acknowledgment that, unless something significant in the current nominating game changed, Cruz was headed for defeat.
“The current message is ‘Trump sucks,’ and ‘the campaign has a great strategy for attracting delegates,’” said one Cruz source. “That’s not a message, that’s a process. I see this as a means to stir things up and get us back to Cruz’s narrative of shaking up Washington. If she helps get us there, I’m all for it.”
One person familiar with the decision said the Cruz campaign had deliberated for the past two week whether to pick Fiorina, including polling the potential ticket, examining it for prospective strengths and weaknesses.
The campaign began laying the groundwork to spring the surprise in recent days. First came the leak that Fiorina was being vetted. Then came the public acknowledgment from Cruz’s campaign manager, and then Cruz himself, that they had narrowed the possibilities to a “short list.” Cruz got ahead of the campaign earlier this month when he said at a CNN town hall that his team was already assessing options.
“After a great deal of consideration and prayer, I have come to the conclusion that if I am nominated to be president of the United States, I will run on a ticket with my vice presidential nominee, Carly Fiorina,” Cruz declared in Indianapolis at an event carried live by all the cable networks.
It was a surreal scene, as Cruz announced his pick with all the pomp and circumstance of a presidential nominee, even as the contest threatened to slip from his grasp. He delivered a stemwinder of a speech before Fiorina took the microphone, praised Cruz as a father, and sang aloud to his daughters.
The blatant grab for television attention and push to jolt the political system had echoes Marco Rubio’s ill-fated decision to attack Trump in sharply personal terms ahead of Super Tuesday. Rubio, as Cruz did Wednesday, succeeded in drawing attention. But he did not win any support, and was out of the race within weeks.
On Wednesday, Cruz hailed Fiorina as a woman of “extraordinary intelligence” and solid conservative principles. “She respects the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” he praised.
It is highly unusual for a candidate who is trailing to name a running mate. Indeed, Bernie Sanders is closer to Hillary Clinton’s delegate haul than Cruz is to Trump. As of Wednesday, Trump had amassed 954 of the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination. Cruz had a mere 562.
And coming after lopsided losses and ahead of must-win Indiana, some said the Cruz maneuver had more than a whiff of desperation.
“Ideally, a VP announcement is one of those rare moments that gives you near total control of several news cycles, so it has to be planned with maximum impact in mind,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran Republican strategist and former adviser to Mitt Romney. “This looks reactionary instead of a rollout that’s tactical.”
Trump slammed the move even before it was official, saying Cruz was “wasting his time” because he would never be the nominee.
“Carly is not going to do the trick,” Trump said on CBS’ “Good Morning America,” adding, “I like Carly. Nice person but she never resonated. She didn’t do well. She went — she was very low in the polls and by the end she was an insignificant player.”
Democrats piled on, too.
“I would define that ticket to the American people in this way: mean and meaner,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, an outspoken liberal Democrat who beat Fiorina in her 2010 reelection campaign and has clashed with Cruz in the Senate.
The pick is likely to please a crucial constituency of one: Robert Mercer, who has been one of the most generous benefactors of Cruz’s super PAC, giving it $11 million. Mercer is also a Fiorina fan, sending $500,000 to a super PAC that backed her own presidential run.
If Cruz is to be competitive in California, his campaign and super PAC are likely to need an infusion of millions of additional dollars for ads and mail in the sprawling state ahead of the June 7 primary.
Cruz and Fiorina began the 2016 campaign with little prior relationship but warmed to one another over time. “Born in Texas,” Cruz said in his speech, “the very first thing I liked about her.”
In early February, Fiorina took notice when Cruz was among the most outspoken of her rivals in demanding that she be included in the New Hampshire prime-time debate, when ABC News’ criteria threatened to exclude her.
She and Cruz spoke again during the Conservative Political Action Conference’s gathering in March, and she delivered her full-throated endorsement of him in Miami, shortly before the Florida primary.
“Isn’t Carly extraordinary?” Cruz gushed a few days later, on March 15, after Fiorina had barnstormed several states with him. “Such a tremendous leader. And I’ve got to tell you, she terrifies Hillary Clinton. Hillary tosses and turns in her jail cell thinking about her.”
One of Cruz’s friends, who has spoken with the candidate about the process of selecting a running mate, said in an interview last month that Cruz wanted a committed conservative with “real grassroots appeal” and someone willing to push his agenda “even if it’s hard.” But Cruz also spoke about the need for gender balance on a ticket going up against Clinton.
“Then of course, we talked in the abstract that there would be a lot of pressure, given Hillary Clinton being at the top of the ticket, on the other side there would be a lot of pressure to go with a female vice president,” this person said.
For now, though, Fiorina is a partner in taking down Trump. She wowed Cruz and Republicans nationwide last September when, at a GOP debate, she took Trump to task for mocking her looks. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said coolly.
Cruz cited the exchange — “the grace, the class, the élan” of Fiorina — as he picked her.
Mica Mosbacher, a co-chair of Women for Cruz and a fundraiser for him, said Fiorina could help Cruz with women and in California. “For those who do not like Trump, [Fiorina’s] fierce, not-intimidated style has garnered respect among educated working women and moms,” Mosbacher said in an email. “She lost to Barbara Boxer in California because of a liberal-leaning constituency, she still had a very strong showing among Republican voters.”
Picking a running mate is among the most personal choices a candidate can make, and the Cruz-Fiorina relationship began to blossom, people close to them have said, in Wisconsin. There, they crisscrossed the state along with Heidi Cruz and the Cruz daughters, with whom she has bonded, regularly exchanging texts with Cruz’s eldest, Caroline.
In his speech, Cruz said Fiorina would even sing to his girls, making up lyrics along the way.
Fiorina appeared for him at a Women for Cruz event, hoping to drive a wedge between Trump and female voters. And Fiorina has impressed the hardworking Cruz with her loyal and tireless work as a surrogate, going wherever his team has asked virtually without question, from Fargo, North Dakota to Ballwin, Missouri.
They make a potentially potent pair in the 24-hour media era. While Cruz is a night owl, Fiorina is an early-morning riser, meaning he can tape prime-time shows and she can wake up early for the morning gabfests.
Fiorina also gives Cruz a political partner with some experience, albeit losing experience, in a state that he’s taken to calling “the big enchilada,” whose 172 delegates will ultimately decide whether Trump can seal the nomination. This weekend, Fiorina is scheduled to give the keynote address at the California Republican Party convention, speaking hours after Cruz takes the stage.
But Cruz is hardly inheriting a political machine in California. The Senate race was Fiorina’s lone previous bid for public office and after her loss to Boxer she moved to Virginia, leaving little political operation behind.
“It’s not like tapping into an established California Republican political official who had years to build a political grass-roots organization,” said Beth Miller, a California Republican strategist who worked for Fiorina in 2010.
The Cruz team hopes Fiorina helps him far sooner than that. Some in the campaign fear the Texas senator will lose Indiana on Tuesday and many other states in May, including Nebraska, where he’s long been assumed to be a favorite. But Cruz hopes that with Fiorina by his side, he is girding for a contested convention.
“I’m not getting to 1237 delegates,” he declared in Indianapolis, “and Donald J. Trump is not getting to 1237 delegates.”
Lauren Gardner contributed to this report.
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