Sitting at a bar in the coastal New Hampshire city of Portsmouth, Ray Brunelle rattled off the qualities he admires in Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
A retired Air Force veteran, he appreciates Gabbard’s military background. He praised her “cool and calm” performance in the last primary debate. But the thing that most impressed Brunelle about Gabbard had less to do with what he likes and more to do with whom he dislikes: Hillary Clinton.
“They got in a little tit-for-tat clash there,” he said, referring to Clinton’s recent suggestion that Republicans were “grooming” Gabbard to be a third-party spoiler in the 2020 election. “I’m trying to recall what it was that prompted Hillary to say that. Perhaps it was Tulsi’s moderate, middle-of-the-road politics.”
Even as other long-shot candidates in this historically large primary field have dropped out, Gabbard is standing strong, despite relatively modest support from voters nationally. She has managed to parlay her feud with Clinton into an extended presence in the political spotlight, delighting Republicans like Brunelle and independents and conservative Democrats who dislike the Clintons.
Gabbard’s candidacy has drawn a modest following in New Hampshire, an early voting state that prides itself on a streak of flinty independence — and, importantly, that allows independents to register to vote in the Democratic presidential primary.
Her enduring viability underscores the fluidity of a packed Democratic primary that has produced a stable top tier but has still found room for little-known candidates like Gabbard and entrepreneur Andrew Yang to spread their messages and develop a small — but devoted — following.
While Gabbard has long cast herself in opposition to her party, her barrage of attacks in response to the feud with Clinton has given her campaign a fresh jolt of energy. After spending months polling at 1%, she’s now one of 10 candidates who have qualified for the televised Democratic debate Wednesday night and is on the verge of making the stage next month as well.
“That whole thing was kind of odd to me, but I think it probably helped her,” Kathy Sullivan, the former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said of Gabbard’s feud with Clinton. “There’s that sense of not toting any particular ‘party line,’ to the extent we have a party line. There are voters who like that.”
In a moment marked by fractured politics and the declining control of the political establishment, Gabbard’s nontraditional positions and willingness to take on a major figure in her own party are a large part of her appeal.
Supporters praise Gabbard’s unorthodox platform, a mix of noninterventionist foreign policy, liberal social policy and libertarian leanings on issues like drug decriminalization. On some topics, she echoes arguments typically made by Republicans, like her claim that her speech was stifled by the big technology platforms and her frequent complaints of media bias. She’s a popular guest on conservative media, collecting an eclectic group of supporters, including alt-right internet stars, white nationalists, libertarian activists and some of President Donald Trump’s biggest boosters.
That unconventional mix plays particularly well in New Hampshire, a state where the primary system expands the base of voters beyond just committed Democrats. Under the state’s rules, independents can choose to become a member of a party just long enough to vote and then re-register as an independent as soon as they finish.
Those independents make up a potentially decisive bloc: In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, the last primary with an incumbent president, nearly half the state’s voters were unaffiliated with a party, according to exit polls.
In that race, Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, captured nearly a quarter of the vote in New Hampshire. Largely dismissed as a protest candidate, he finished second to Mitt Romney, the eventual party nominee.
Thomas D. Rath, a longtime New Hampshire Republican hand who served as a senior strategist to Romney, sees echoes of Paul’s candidacy in Gabbard’s appeal.
“There’s a group up here that prefers the unorthodox, and maybe in her candidacy they find a voice for it,” Rath said. “This kind of candidate, sometimes it almost becomes cultlike.”
Gabbard has recently risen as high as 6% in polls of likely voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. But that support has largely come from moderate and conservative voters, and from independents — not the liberals and partisan Democrats that compose the party’s base. In a Quinnipiac University poll this month, she was the choice of 6% of likely Democratic primary voters in the state but only 2% of liberals. Among moderates and conservatives she pulled 9% support, and she was at 10% among political independents.
One analysis of Gabbard’s base found that her supporters are overwhelmingly male and more likely to fall outside of traditional Democratic circles, such as those who have backed Trump in 2016, hold conservative positions or identify as Republicans — particularly in New Hampshire.
Both polls qualifying her for the November debate surveyed voters in the state. Capturing at least 4% in one more survey will put her on the stage in December.
The likelihood of her remaining on the debate stage until next year has raised concerns among some of her rivals, who view her as an unpredictable adversary who can deliver withering attacks.
People close to the campaign expect her to try to target Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in this week’s debate. Last month, her efforts to quiz Warren on her qualifications to be commander-in-chief were aborted after the moderator moved to a commercial break. Gabbard’s campaign later claimed that she was “cut off” by CNN, which was televising the debate, to “protect Ms. Warren.”
Yet, while the debates have provided good moments for her campaign, perhaps nothing attracted as much attention as her high-profile feud with Clinton.
The two women share years of animosity, dating to the 2016 election, when Gabbard quit her post at the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont over Clinton in the primary race. Former Clinton aides say that Gabbard lodged some of the toughest attacks against Clinton during that contest.
She repeated some of those charges — calling Clinton the “queen of the warmongers” and the “embodiment of corruption” — after Clinton said on a podcast last month that Gabbard was a “favorite of the Russians.”
People familiar with the campaign’s thinking say that many in Gabbard’s inner circle view Clinton as part of a conspiracy of Democratic officials and the media aiming to destroy her reputation. They view an attack on her as a way to push back on accusations that Gabbard is being used in some way by the Russians, charges they believe are baseless and being pushed by allies of Clinton.
They also see it as playing to their political advantage, keeping up a steady drumbeat of attacks on Clinton and fundraising off the controversy.
Even Trump weighed into the controversy, saying Gabbard was likely helped by Clinton’s comments.
“She’s accusing everyone of being a Russian agent. These people are sick. There’s something wrong with them,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting at the White House last month.
Gabbard’s campaign declined to comment on its strategy.
Her campaign has tried to keep the controversy going. Last week, lawyers for Gabbard sent a letter to Clinton demanding she hold a news conference to issue a formal retraction of her comments.
Clinton has stayed silent: In recent weeks, some Democrats reached out to Clinton’s team to urge the former secretary of state not to respond. Her aides did not offer comment about
But for Gabbard, competing for attention in a field of 18 primary candidates, the political points may have already been scored.
Jon Pelletier, a 48-year-old from Hampton who commutes into Boston, took his shot at a pool hall in Portsmouth before he rattled off a foggy list of what he knew about Gabbard: She was an Army vet, and she had contrarian views to others in the party.
“The only thing other than that is the argument she had with Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Hillary said she was being helped by the Russians. With the whole Trump world we live in now, it’s another quick headline you read and you go onto the next thing. You don’t know who to believe anymore.”