Tulsi Gabbard 2020: Could the Democratic Party’s ’emerging talent’ oust Trump from White House?
On the face of it Tulsi Gabbard ticks a large number of electoral boxes.
For the left, she is a woman who campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, even quitting the Democratic National Committee so she could support him against the party establishment.
Her appeal is broadened by the fact she fought for her country, suspending her political career to serve two stints in Iraq. Throw in that Ms Gabbard, 37, is the first American Samoan and Hindu to serve in Congress, it is hardly surprising that people believe that she could offer the star quality needed to oust Donald Trump.
The Hawaii congresswoman, who announced in January her campaign to run for the presidency in 2020, was even singled out by Nancy Pelosi as an “emerging talent”.
But with the race for the Democratic nomination still in its infancy, she has emerged as the most divisive of the party’s aspiring candidates.
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Critics such as Shay Chan Hodges, a Democrat who challenged Ms Gabbard for the congressional seat in 2016, are questioning her progressive credentials.
“When Tulsi Gabbard was first elected to Congress in 2012, many Hawaii progressives were willing to give her a chance and we were hopeful that her claims that she had truly evolved from her conservative past — which included anti-LGBTQ and anti-homeless activism — were genuine,” she said.
“But I think what people in Hawaii noticed first was Gabbard’s constant self-promotion. When she quit the DNC, many of us thought her criticisms were valid, but the act itself seemed self-serving.
“I think that was when a lot of people started to feel uncomfortable about her – and started to look more closely at what was behind her actions."
While other Democrats wanted nothing to do with Donald Trump after his 2016 victory, Ms Gabbard went to meet him, insisting the meeting had been “frank and positive”.
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But then, Ms Gabbard has ruffled a lot of feathers in her 16-year political career which began when she was the youngest person to be elected to the Hawaii state legislature, aged 21.
Concerns have been raised over her association with the Science of Identity Foundation, an offshoot of the Hare Krishna movement.
The cult is seen as having influenced her conservative stance on social issues early in her career, such as her opposition to gay rights and working for her father’s organisation, the Alliance for Traditional Marriage.
She has since reversed her position and is now a member of the House of Representatives LGBT Equality Caucus.
But despite her unimpeachable progressive voting record on gay rights in Congress, it is one of a number of issues where she is vulnerable.
The knives are also out over her foreign policy record.
She has been criticised for meeting Bashar al-Assad in January 2017. Even though she had previously described him as “a brutal dictator”, some believe the trip was ill-advised.
Ms Gabbard has also faced criticism for her support of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi.
She upset progressives by demanding that Barack Obama use the term “radical Islam” – a phrase more commonly associated with Donald Trump.
In Hawaii she had a spectacular falling out with Mazie Hirono, a fellow Democrat and one of the state’s senators, writing an op-ed accusing her of having “weaponised religion” for political purposes with her aggressive questioning during the Kavanaugh hearings.
Not surprisingly, the senator is not endorsing Ms Gabbard’s White House campaign.
“Congressional delegations have always thought of themselves as a team and almost never criticise each other,” said Colin Moore, the director of public policy at the University of Hawaii.
“They see their job as keeping their heads down and bringing federal dollars back to Hawaii.”
Some argue her mix of hawkishness on foreign policy and left-wing views on domestic matters could be helpful once the campaign gets underway.
“Her strength is that she is an independent thinker,” Mr Moore added.
“Tulsi has charisma, she is great on television and is one of the most popular politicians in the state.”
Another senior Hawaii Democrat activist also believes she has a lot to offer despite her earlier stance on gay marriage.
“If people ask where these views came from, they came from the cult she grew up with.
“I think she is strong, determined and pretty fearless. She is still adored on Fox News, she is seen as an attractive exotic woman and that makes it easier for people to like her,” he told the Telegraph.
“She is simultaneously reserved and warm. She can be defensive when people ask her questions she doesn’t want to answer because she knows the direction the questioning is going.”
Her candidacy has intrigued observers in Washington such as Brandon Barford, a partner at Beacon Policy Advisors.
"Tulsi Gabbard is interesting, she is close to moderates and military veterans like Seth Moulton.”
Even though more celebrated figures are running, experts such as Robert Shapiro, Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government at Columbia University, are not writing her off.
“In a very large field, the debates will be important so everyone may have a shot. She has little name recognition now, however, so she is a longshot. But so was Trump.”
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