Ted Cruz's choice of Carly Fiorina as his running mate three months before Republicans convene at their national convention to formally select their presidential nominee marks one of the boldest moves of not only the 2016 campaign, but of any cycle in recent history.
However, the audacious stroke also conveys the tenuous position in which the Texas senator finds himself after getting wiped away by front-runner Donald Trump in five Northeastern primary states that voted Tuesday. The rout put Trump in a realistic position to reach the delegate threshold that would allow him to become the GOP nominee on the convention's first ballot – and Cruz suddenly needed to change that media narrative.
So just hours after Trump had wrapped a major foreign policy speech in Washington aimed in part at presenting himself as the likely GOP standard-bearer, Cruz pulled another round of political jiujitsu, unveiling Fiorina as his No. 2 before an audience in Indiana – a state he needs to win next Tuesday in order to keep his White House hopes alive this year.
"I have come to the conclusion that if I am nominated to be president of the United States that I will run on a ticket with my vice presidential nominee Carly Fiorina," Cruz said, standing on an Indianapolis stage filled with women and young girls to drive home a selection in which gender was clearly a factor. "She is careful, she is measured, she is serious. She doesn't get overly excited. She doesn't get rattled by whatever's being thrown at her."
All those attributes ring true, which is why even though the timing of Fiorina's selection may reek of desperation, the choice itself is a smart, strategic one that represents Cruz's best play at this precarious moment.
First and foremost, Fiorina is obviously a woman – the only one to run alongside 16 GOP men this year. And with the likelihood of Republicans facing a general election against Hillary Clinton – who is joyfully playing the "woman card" – placing a female on the ticket can only help chip away at the gaping gender gap the party is staring at.
But just as important is the feistiness Fiorina exemplified on the campaign trail, particularly in primary debates when she lustily tore into Clinton as a liar.
"We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets into the ring," she said in the first undercard debate back in August.
Her poise and delivery scored her a victory and she ascended to the main stage for the second debate in September. It's that type of performance that Cruz is depending on to help him juice up his immediate case against Trump.
In his introduction of Fiorina on Wednesday, Cruz recalled when she was forced to respond to Trump's disparagement of her face on the debate stage.
"Everyone remembers the grace, the class, the élan, with which Carly responded," he said.
Speaking after Cruz and without him on the stage, Fiorina brandished the fire she's capable of unleashing, conveniently grouping Clinton and Trump together in her invective.
"Hillary Clinton has made her millions selling access and influence from inside the system. And Donald Trump has made his billions buying people like Hillary Clinton. They are not going to challenge the system that has sold us all down the river," she said to cheers. "They're not going to challenge the system. They are the system."
Fiorina will be knocked for her bumpy record as head of Hewlett-Packard and mocked for her resounding 2010 Senate-race loss to Barbara Boxer, but being a lifelong unelected person is an asset in the Republican primary this year, and potentially in a fall general election as well.
More strategically, Fiorina can help Cruz immediately by dividing up Indiana to hit more territory in the remaining days before the primary. Her presence on the trail will draw considerable coverage because she is the new, hot character at a time when the media is champing to find a fresh, shiny storyline.
The lines Cruz himself has deployed against Trump are tired and worn. Fiorina will give the onslaught a new coat of paint, if not an entirely original shade.
"The difference between Carly and me on one side and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the other side could not be starker," Cruz said.
Fiorina may also become very useful when the campaign careens toward California, where the 172 delegates at stake could determine whether Trump is the nominee. Sure, Fiorina lost by 10 points to Boxer in 2010. But simply by having run in the Golden State, she's more familiar with the congressional districts and local players than most. Knowing whom to talk to and where could provide Cruz with an added leg up over Trump, who has never shown as much interest in that type of gritty ground organization.
But don't be fooled. This isn't about an electoral calculation or about placing California or any other state in play in a fall matchup against Clinton.
It is about changing the subject at a time when the media is ready to all but anoint Trump the nominee-in-waiting, and to begin slicing and dicing November contests between the billionaire real estate mogul and the former secretary of state.
Cruz's goal was to rip that split-screen off 24-hour cable news and force the cameras to pay attention to him again. By that measure, the choice was a success.
Fiorina will be a formidable advocate for Cruz and a potentially thorny adversary for Trump.
She is already proving her willingness to do whatever is asked of her, trying her hardest to describe Cruz as warm and fun in her rollout. Cruz said Fiorina had grown so close to his daughters on the trail that they continue to trade text messages filled with emojis.
Onstage, Fiorina even belted out a song that she sings to Caroline and Catherine and insisted that Cruz is someone enjoyable to have a beer with, perhaps while watching basketball, the Hoosier State's most treasured pastime.
"I am prepared to stand by his side and give this everything I have to restore the soul of our party, to defeat Donald Trump, to defeat Hillary Clinton and to take our country back," Fiorina assured.
But Cruz needs to show results from this power play fast.