Hillary Clinton suggested this past week that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-H.I., has been “groomed” by Russians to act as a spoiler in the 2020 race — a wild accusation that Gabbard, a U.S. Army combat veteran, has fiercely denied.
And after making the explosive accusation, Hillary is trying to avoid Gabbard at all costs.
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Gabbard had a chance to meet face-to-face with Hillary at the upcoming Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit this Friday in Washington, D.C…. until Hillary suddenly chickened out and cancelled her appearance.
Hillary’s aides cited a scheduling conflict as the reason for her sudden withdrawal from the annual event. One insider claimed she dropped out in protest because of the inclusion of former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
“But Gabbard is on the bill, too — and Clinton’s pull-out came just hours after the former Secretary of State on Friday accused the Hawaii Democrat of being the ‘favorite of the Russians’ on a podcast,” The New York Post reported.
Hillary’s attack may have had the opposite effect of what the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee intended: It’s elevated Gabbard’s candidacy and may have inspired even more ardent interest in her campaign among Clinton critics.
On Saturday, Gabbard found fans among the many Clinton skeptics across Iowa, where Clinton barely won the 2016 Democratic caucuses against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“What is this horrible thing that Hillary said about you?” one person asked Gabbard at a house party in West Branch.
Gabbard responded that “it revealed the truth that I have been experiencing for a long time now — which is that, because I have been trying to bring about an end to our country’s long-held foreign policy of waging one regime-change war after the next. I am labeled as a traitor.”
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“This is a message that is being sent to every single American who speaks out for peace,” she said.
Gabbard’s longshot campaign came under scrutiny this past week after Hillary said on a podcast that she believes the Russians have “got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third party candidate.” There was no mistaking whom she meant.
Hillary produced no evidence that Moscow is grooming or directly backing the congresswoman.
Gabbard fired back on social media, tweeting that Hillary Clinton was the “queen of warmongers” —
Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a …
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) October 18, 2019
… powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose.
It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) October 18, 2019
Gabbard’s campaign has been mentioned by Russian state-owned media and defended on Twitter by the Russian Embassy.
She’s previously faced criticism from Democratic Party leaders for her unorthodox foreign policy positions, like her decision to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On Friday and Saturday, Gabbard repeatedly said she will not run as an independent or third-party candidate if she doesn’t win the Democratic nomination.
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Gabbard encountered supporters across eastern Iowa on Saturday. During a campaign stop in Iowa City at a University of Iowa tailgate, a man came up to give Gabbard a ushanka-style yellow Hawkeye hat.
“It’s a Russian hat!” Gabbard said with a laugh, before hugging the man and taking a picture with him.
And at the West Branch house party, Gabbard found many Clinton critics who were supportive of her campaign.
Clinton’s comments were “divisive and despicable,” said Patricia McIntosh, 83, a semi-retired university employee who liked Gabbard’s “anti-regime-change message.” McIntosh said: “I have no respect for Hillary Clinton at all.”
Robert Rodriguez, a 35-year-old food delivery driver, drove from Minneapolis to see Gabbard speak. He, too, appreciated Gabbard’s anti-war stance and said Clinton had “sowed division in this primary” with her critique. He also noted Gabbard’s support from some conservative-leaning websites.
He asked: “You have people praising candidates for being able to reach across the aisle and garner support from the so-called other side, but Tulsi’s a problem because she has support from the other side? Isn’t that what we want?”
Both Rodriguez and McIntosh described themselves as longtime Gabbard fans and skeptics of the Democratic establishment, and both said they weren’t sure if they’d support the eventual nominee if neither Gabbard nor Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another anti-establishment candidate for president, didn’t win.
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But Gabbard also managed to win over some people who hadn’t been familiar with her campaign, like Jennifer Rogers, a 38-year-old nurse from North Liberty, Iowa, who liked that Gabbard was a military veteran.
“I really like that she answers questions,” she said. “She doesn’t just shout talking points and campaign slogans.” Rogers said she’s been on the fence but “today I’m pretty convinced that I think she’s going to be my candidate.”
Still, it’s unclear exactly what Gabbard hopes to achieve with her unorthodox campaign, as she’s struggled to raise money and hit the polling threshold to make it on the debate stage. She has yet to qualify for next month’s debate.
Gabbard has just three staff members on the ground in Iowa.
Asked whether she plans to add staff in any of the early states, Gabbard demurred.
She said she’s “continuing to use every platform possible to reach voters directly” when asked about her path to the nomination, and wouldn’t predict how she’d finish in Iowa. But she suggested that might not matter — even if she doesn’t have enough delegates to win, “we’re taking this all the way to the nomination.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article