After a breakout performance in last week’s Democratic presidential debate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard hit one of two benchmarks to get into the next debate but then embarked on a two-week Army National Guard training exercise in Indonesia.
For Ms. Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran and major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, the hiatus from the campaign trail couldn’t come at a worse time. She is facing an Aug. 28 deadline to hit the second benchmark of at least 2% in four polls, with only one qualifying poll under her belt.
The Hawaii Democrat said her campaign will forge ahead in her absence and keep hammering the anti-war message that is the impetus of her quixotic run.
“We’ve got a strong people-powered campaign, and so we’re working on making sure that our folks are out and they’re continuing to go to the fairs and the town halls and sharing our message as I will be stepping away from the campaign for two weeks to fulfill my duty to the Army National Guard,” Ms. Gabbard told ABC News before joining her unit.
Ms. Gabbard’s message that the U.S. should get out of foreign wars and stop forcing democracy on other countries has been gaining fans among liberals and libertarians.
Her campaign has signaled that spreading the message is more important to Ms. Gabbard than winning the nomination. But failing to make it on to the debate stage next month in Houston will make it difficult to do either.
The Democratic National Committee raised the bar for entry to the third debate. Not qualifying is widely viewed as a campaign killer, with as many as half the candidates in the crowded field expected to bow out in September.
The candidates now must meet both a polling and donor threshold, instead of either, and each threshold is higher than it had been. They need the 2% in the polls and 130,000 donors across 20 states, up from 1% in polls or 65,000 donors required for the first two debates.
So far, nine candidates appear to have made the cut: former Vice President Joseph R. Biden; Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala D. Harris of California, Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Democratic strategist Cathy Allen said Ms. Gabbard’s branding herself a military woman demands that she not opt-out of required service, regardless of the timing. She also saw more to gain than to lose for Ms. Gabbard in donning Army fatigues.
“Her time away for military service is not what will keep her from the next set of debates. Like several of her counterparts, she has little means of catching up before the debates as there is no mechanism for making up those numbers except for the debate,” Ms. Allen said. “Her military service — and media surrounding it — is likely to be the only major boost she could receive before the next debate-qualifying numbers are due.”
“The public is ready for the race to be cut at least in half. She seems one of those likely to be in the cuts,” she said.
Ms. Gabbard has raised her profile whenever given the chance.
She was the most searched candidates on Google after presidential debates in Miami and Detroit, according to the company’s analytics.
In Detroit last week, she executed a stinging critique of Ms. Harris, accusing the top contender of failing to live up to her justice-reform rhetoric on the death penalty, marijuana and bail when serving as San Francisco district attorney and then California attorney general.
“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Ms. Gabbard said in one exchange.
Ms. Harris dodged the question. She said she was “actually doing the work” of reforming the justice system while others gave speeches.
“The bottom line is,” Ms. Gabbard responded, “when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not. And worse yet in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so.”
The jousting likely boosted Ms. Gabbard more than it took down Ms. Harris. Ms. Harris remains a top contender in the race and had already easily qualified for the Houston debate. Still, the hashtag #KamalaHarrisDestroyed was trending after the debate.
In retaliation, the Harris campaign pointing to an NBC News story that said “Russia’s propaganda machine” was supporting Ms. Gabbard, and after the debate, Ms. Harris blasted Ms. Harris for her 2017 meeting with Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Major news organizations quickly echoed the attack on Ms. Gabbard.
Within two days, Ms. Gabbard announced that she crossed the 130,000 donor threshold to qualify for the Houston debate.
“People are sick and tired of self-serving politicians and corporate interests exploiting them for their own selfish gain. I love our country, and I love the American people. They are why I’m in this fight,” Ms. Gabbard said.