One thing is clear: No one would be talking about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard if she hadn’t tried to kneecap Sen. Kamala Harris. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
Tulsi Gabbard’s slashing debate performance is giving her presidential campaign a badly-needed pulse — and stoking a flurry of speculation about what her end game is.
Gabbard delivered a piercing, if inaccurate, appraisal of Kamala Harris’ law enforcement record — then turned it into a misleading, yet effective, online ad push. Adding to the intrigue, she had a hushed sideline conversation with Joe Biden — with whom she seems to have little in common politically — after the debate.Story Continued Below
It’s all triggered a parlor game back in Hawaii, where the four-term congresswoman is at risk of losing a primary for her House seat as she’s stuck at 1 percent in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Among the theories: That she’s angling for vice president or a Cabinet post; that she’s weighing a third-party run; or, perhaps, that she’s looking to land a contract as a TV talking head while plotting her next move.
“People are concerned that even if she drops out of the [presidential] race and runs for her seat again, the second something else comes up she’ll abandon it and abandon us again. In other words, that her run for president is the precursor to her run for whatever,” said former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who is backing her primary challenger — and isn’t the only one wondering what Gabbard’s objective is.
He added, “People think she’s going to get a media job, that CNN or MSNBC of Fox will want her to become a commentator.”
Gabbard stressed that she’s in the presidential race to win and wouldn’t mount a third-party spoiler campaign. “I will support the eventual nominee to defeat Donald Trump,” she said at an event Tuesday in New York. “And I’m working hard to make sure that nominee is me.”
One thing is clear: No one would be talking about her if she hadn’t tried to kneecap Harris.
The exchange elicited howls of approval from the far reaches of the left and right. Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who had helped arrange a Trump Tower meeting between Gabbard and the president-elect late in 2016, gave her a shoutout. Mehdi Hasan, a columnist for the liberal news site The Intercept, tweeted: “Good for Gabbard for going after Harris on Harris’s awful record as a prosecutor. I’m no Gabbard fan but everything she’s saying right now about Harris is TRUE.”
Online, elements of Gabbard’s Star Wars bar scene-like following have unleashed a stream of brutal internet memes that savagely mock Harris’ law enforcement career. In one, a child-arsonist stares into the camera as a house fire ranges behind her: “Kamala Harris’ political career,” it reads. Another declares that “Nobody can roast a pig better than a Hawaiian.”
Embedded in the cheering is the belief — and certainly the hope — that Gabbard could seriously benefit.
“She could get hot any minute,” Charlie Kirk, founder and CEO of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, told POLITICO. “It’s a grassroots fire waiting to happen.”
Others see something approximating a dumpster fire.
The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, took credit for juicing donations to Gabbard and helping her qualify for the first two debates. The Stormer said it promoted her to “make the Jews go nuts.” A story in Jewish Insider said while the website did not explicitly support Gabbard’s candidacy, it said her participation in the debate was an opportunity to “talk about Jews starting all the wars.”
David Duke praised her earlier in the year as the only presidential candidate who doesn’t want to send “White children off to die for Israel.”
Gabbard denied any connections between her campaign and neo-Nazis, distancing herself from the website’s solicitations. “I have and continue to completely denounce people like David Duke, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists and the evil they preach across our country,” she said.
Asked about other conservative supporters, she added: “I don’t know why people like you keep bringing them up other than to try to make it out that I’m something that I’m not.”
The wind in Gabbard’s post-debate sails was quickly clipped by a series of confrontational interviews on CNN and MSNBC about her meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2017, and her repeated reluctance to condemn the murderous despot (Gabbard did tell CNN that Assad is “a brutal dictator— just like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi.”)
She was on friendlier ground with Fox News. In a segment with Tucker Carlson, the host called Harris’ criticism of Gabbard after the debate “the first refuge of contemptible.”
“The one place you don’t want to be in Washington is outside the status quo, as you are,” Carlson said in a moment of on-air sympathy for Gabbard. “That’s when you start getting it from all sides.”
Harris’ campaign views Gabbard as a low-polling candidate desperate to break out who has fixated on the California senator to use the attack as a launching pad for notoriety. Ian Sams, a Harris spokesman, tweeted unfavorable stories about Gabbard, arguing if the media is going to treat the exchange seriously, reporters should further scrutinize her many controversies.
Sams linked to an NBC News analysis from February concluding the Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is promoting Gabbard.
Harris herself had said after the debate that Gabbard was soft on Assad.
In the lead-up to the most recent debate, Gabbard hinted that she would criticize Harris but not Biden, unlike other Democrats. Gabbard also said that Harris’ criticism of Biden’s positions on busing for desegregation was really “a false accusation that Biden is a racist.”
A spokesman for Biden’s campaign declined to comment on Gabbard.
On Wednesday, Gabbard was at a co-working space in Manhattan with more than 100 supporters. The focus was on her presidential campaign, and some were wearing leis and chanting “Tulsi.”
Gabbard still needs to register at least 2 percent in three more polls to make the next debate. So she’s been instructing her supporters to answer calls from unknown numbers in the unlikely case they are from a pollster. Mixed in with her talk about the need to end costly regime-change wars and stand up to powerful interests, hallmarks of her speeches, Gabbard alluded to the heat she’s gotten since the debate.
“It is about the truth and speaking truth to power. It’s amazing how power reacts to the truth,” she said at the New York gathering.“Because what happened after last Wednesday night? Was the truth responded to with facts, substance or issues?” Urged on by the crowd, she summed up her view of the backlash: “Smears.”
“They responded by calling you a puppet of Assad,” a supporter cried out.
Also “smeared,” said Gabbard, were Iraq War opponents in the post-9/11 era.
“It’s popular today to say, ‘Yes of course I was against the war in Iraq.’ It’s an easy thing for politicians to say today. But what about standing up courageously and speaking against the regime-change wars that are happening today?” she asked.
“The gall that these people have now today to try to smear me and tell me that I don’t love my country, that I’m a Trojan horse for some foreign country, that I’m a Russian, whatever you want to call it,” she added. The suggestion “that my oath and loyalties lie anywhere but to the country and to the people I have sworn to put my life on the line for is offensive.”
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