WEST BRANCH, Iowa (AP) — Hillary Clinton’s suggestion this past week that Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is being “groomed” by Russians to act as a spoiler in the 2020 race 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."
"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 Clinton appeared on a podcast where she did not mention the Hawaii congresswoman by name, but said 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.
Although Russian interest in Gabbard is apparent, Clinton produced no evidence that Moscow is grooming or directly backing the congresswoman.
Gabbard's campaign has been promoted by Russian state-owned media and a number of alt-right websites and defended on Twitter by the Russian Embassy. She's previously faced controversy and criticism from leaders in her party for her unorthodox foreign policy positions, like her decision to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Friday and Saturday, Gabbard refused to disavow the support she's seen from Russian actors and alt-right sites. But she repeatedly said she will not run as an independent or third-party candidate if she doesn't win the Democratic nomination.
And 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 alt-right 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.
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.”