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.
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.”