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Trump, Kasich and Cruz make their cases to California GOP: On unity, electability and fish

At least one attendee appeared noncommittal at the California GOP convention in Burlingame, wearing stickers for all three remaining Republican presidential candidates.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The challengers trying to derail Donald Trump’s march to the Republican presidential nomination detailed sharply different paths to a victory in California’s June primary as they made their pitches before state GOP delegates facing the unusual prospect of an election that matters.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich raised the banner of electability, insisting Friday that despite his long string of defeats, November voters in California and elsewhere would come to him in an electoral epiphany.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offered a pitch — involving the Delta smelt — tailored specifically for the Central Valley, where he hopes to amass enough delegates to deny Trump the nomination, tossing the decision to the summer national convention.

But Trump’s argument was by far the more clear-cut. As if he were the political reincarnation of the late Oakland Raiders owner Al “Just Win, Baby” Davis, Trump insisted that the point was a November victory — and that his campaign has proved he’s a winner.

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His speech at the three-day state GOP convention had almost nothing to do with California. But he pressed repeatedly Friday on the notion that his nomination is inevitable and that the party’s chances in the fall depend on unifying in support of him.

The convention seemed to lean toward Trump’s inevitability; no giant groundswell rose on behalf of Cruz, despite his red-meat speech that touched on the environment, immigration and the 2nd Amendment, or for Kasich’s more laid-back approach.

Applause soared, however, at mentions by all three candidates of the need to defeat Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. Each made the argument that he would best accomplish that goal, but Trump’s giant delegate lead and the fact that polls suggest he’s likely to grab the majority of the 172 delegates at stake in this state on June 7 have dampened expectations for the other two.

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll taken in March had the New York businessman ahead of Cruz by 7 points, despite the months of organizing Cruz’s campaign has put into the state. The poll was taken before Trump asserted command of the Republican race, however, and the immediate demand for both Cruz and Kasich this weekend was to somehow overcome the notion that it’s time for Republicans to rally around him.

In his Saturday speech, Cruz called on all Republican voters to join him, but his geographic target was obvious. Almost all Republican delegates here will be awarded by congressional district. Cruz hopes to pick off enough of them to deny Trump, in combination with anti-Trump efforts in other states, the 1,237 delegates needed to grasp the nomination before the convention.

Both Cruz and Kasich are mathematically unable to win the nomination outright themselves; their only hope is a chaotic convention floor fight.

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed the Central Valley to be prime territory for Cruz. He won the support of 44% of respondents there — the only one of six geographic areas in the state not won by Trump.

Cruz’s remarks were heavy with disdain for environmental rules that have denied water to California farmers in that area in order to protect endangered fish such as the Delta smelt. Since 2008, he said, 1.4 trillion gallons of fresh water has been diverted away from farmers “because of a little 3-inch bait fish,” he said. “In my experience, 3-inch fish go great with cheese and crackers.”

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He suggested that it would be a “win-win” to send water to Central Valley farms while breeding the Delta smelt in fish farms.

“You take the little fish. You put up a disco ball, you play some Barry White and you let nature take its course,” he said, drawing raised eyebrows and laughter.

Cruz was fiercely critical of Trump’s foreign policy, and specifically of remarks the New Yorker has made about his intention to be an independent force in negotiations between Israel and Muslim countries. The comments, he said, raised questions about Trump’s “fitness and judgment.”

He declined to cede ground to Trump on border issues, pointing to his new endorser, former California Gov. Pete Wilson, whose backing of an anti-illegal-immigration measure in 1994 has weakened the Republican Party here.

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Like Trump, Kasich offered little in the way of California specifics. It was a lost opportunity for Kasich, who is far behind both Trump and Cruz in delegate accumulation.

Kasich’s speech Friday night was almost eccentric when it came to the task at hand: impressing important party leaders.

He opened with what was meant as a paean to the regular guys he grew up with near Pittsburgh, but that seemed to clang in a room full of GOP activists.

“I’ve been a Republican all my life, but you should understand something,” he said. “The Republican Party is my vehicle; it has never been my master.”

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He went through his standard pleas for voters to reward a candidate who has chosen “not to live on the dark side of human nature” and said America should not fall for “pie-in-the-sky and unrealistic dreams.”

While he maintained a sense of optimism, he acknowledged during a pre-speech meeting with reporters that his odds are long.

“I didn’t fall off a turnip truck on my way to California,” he said. “I know it’s tough.”

“It isn’t working out right now, but you look at the national polls — when everybody gets to vote it’s a different story,” he said, alluding to the fact that he alone among the Republicans is polling ahead of Clinton in general election matchups.

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But the argument by Cruz and Kasich that they should be handed the nomination at the convention after losing most of the primaries and caucuses to Trump is a difficult sell. As the front-runner said Friday: “Give me a break.”

Trump’s speech was relatively muted for him; he criticized a deal between Cruz and Kasich to divide their efforts in some future primaries as showing “such ineptitude and such weakness.” And he mocked the deal’s demise.

“These are politicians, folks — they can’t make a deal,” he said. “How are they going to deal with China? How are they going to do it?”

Most of the time, however, Trump called for Republicans to unify around him. That is certainly happening elsewhere; his romping victories in the last six states to vote suggest a party that is swiftly coming to terms with his nomination.

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“There has to be unity in our party,” he told delegates Friday.

But he added: “That being said, would I win, can I win, without it? I think so.”

The notion of a contested presidential primary in California added a bit of pizazz to the convention events, which also included a Saturday night speech by Carly Fiorina, newly named by Cruz as his running mate.

The candidates all delivered some form of genuflection to the state. Cruz said that his wife, Heidi, was born here, while Kasich brought up his honeymoon in San Francisco and “the Big Sur.”

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All three also pledged to campaign seriously in this determinedly Democratic state in the fall — promises that are likely to be broken after June 7.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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