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Capitol Journal: Ted Cruz picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate? It’s a gambit bound to fail

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz with running mate Carly Fiorina at a rally Wednesday in Indianapolis.

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz with running mate Carly Fiorina at a rally Wednesday in Indianapolis.

(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Pardon me, but this has been tried before: desperately naming a running mate prior to a national convention. It’s a losing gambit.

OK, maybe the third time will be the charm.

Ronald Reagan failed miserably in 1976 when he chose liberal Republican Sen. Richard B. Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate nearly two months before the convention. Schweiker became a burden. Delegates nominated President Ford.

Jerry Brown looked even more lame in 1992 when he tapped the Rev. Jesse Jackson to be his vice president prior to the New York primary. Brown lost the primary he could have won to Bill Clinton. Then he tumbled downhill quickly.

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It’s always possible that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s selection Wednesday of Carly Fiorina as his running mate will help him gain traction as he chases Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. This is a cockeyed presidential contest, after all.

But such a scenario is hard to envision realistically.

Cruz’s strategists obviously are targeting California, where Fiorina won the Republican nomination for U.S. senator in 2010 and presumably retains some party appeal. California is seen as the last roadblock to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination before the Cleveland convention.

But Cruz still needs to win Tuesday in Indiana.

And to use a basketball analogy for the Hoosier State, which thrives on the sport, Cruz’s veep selection looks like a half-court shot at the buzzer. That almost never works.

Anyway, while Cruz has Fiorina, Trump has Bobby Knight, the legendary Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach. Knight is a strong fan who has been campaigning alongside the front-runner.

“Is it a game changer? No, I don’t see it that way,” says veteran political strategist Marty Wilson, referring to Cruz’s selection of Fiorina. Wilson managed Fiorina’s 2010 Senate campaign.

Fiorina won the Republican primary in a near-landslide over two competitors. Then she lost to Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer by 10 points.

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“Cruz has to stand on his own in Indiana,” Wilson says. “If I were running Cruz’s campaign, I’d have him camped out in Indiana and have Carly come out here until [the California primary] June 7.

“But if he can win in Indiana, then that makes California very darn interesting. She’s an effective campaigner.”

Of course, Fiorina would have been perfectly happy to campaign for Cruz anyway, whether as a running mate or a surrogate. She endorsed him long ago after quitting the race herself — and after Trump had mocked her face, sarcastically remarking it was a turnoff and nonpresidential.

Still, I can’t imagine any Trump supporters abandoning the insult artist to vote for the Cruz-Fiorina ticket. If she’d had that kind of drawing power, it would have been seen in Iowa or New Hampshire, where she lagged far behind and dropped out.

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Fiorina did perform well in the debates, but couldn’t transform that into votes.

And although Fiorina can be very pleasant in person, on the presidential trail she often came across as bitter and a bit mean — not exactly the counterweight Cruz should be looking for.

Nevermind that Fiorina has never held public office — not one. Yet, Cruz is choosing her as a stand-in for president of the United States.

Yes, Trump has never held office either. But Cruz isn’t exactly letting that slide.

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If Wednesday’s announcement was about placing a woman on the ticket to counter Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy, Cruz is getting way ahead of himself. First the nomination.

Moreover, choosing a running mate at this early stage deprives a campaign of some fun and mystique. Veep speculation helps to keep the public awake and semi-interested.

Cruz has also now snubbed his nose at every other vice presidential wannabe. So forget him.

But he has erected an inviting target for Democrats.

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“Are they going to run on [Cruz’s] record of shutting down the government and denying climate science, or on her record of exporting American jobs, tanking Hewlett Packard’s stock price when she was CEO and losing the 2010 California Senate race?” California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton asked in a prepared statement.

“It’s a marriage made in heaven.”

I traipsed around with Reagan, covering him for The Times as he tried to control the damage caused by his selection of Schweiker 40 years ago. The conservative former California governor was attempting to attract moderate delegates from the Rust Belt, but really riled up southerners.

A hand-holding trip to Jackson, Miss., particularly stands out. One delegate, asked about Schweiker, told me: “I am still chewing on him. I can’t get him down.”

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By the Kansas City convention, Schweiker was offering to just go away. Reagan figured that would look even worse. So he rejected the offer.

Brown’s selection of Jackson was truly boneheaded.

The then-former California governor was trying to attract black voters. But roughly a third of Democratic voters in New York were Jewish. Many regarded Jackson as anti-Semitic because he had embraced Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and had referred to New York City as “Hymietown.”

Brown wound up getting only 10% of the Jewish vote. And Clinton still won among blacks.

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“Jerry Brown would have won New York if he had not selected Jackson,” Tom Quinn, his longtime political advisor who had shied away from the 1992 campaign, told me back then. “A lot of people were offended.”

It’s usually best not to get burdened with these veeps until the convention.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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