The color in Tulsi Gabbard’s cheeks blended well with the blazer she wore Friday, the day that Van Jones of CNN asked her if she was running for president.
Yes, replied the Hawaii Democrat and U.S. congresswoman. The rapturous applause from Jones and his studio audience that followed clearly delighted her.
It was a surprise unveiling of a presidential campaign that had long been rumored. Gabbard told Jones she would make a formal announcement within days, and the news dominated the news cycle for hours.
Before the weekend was out, however, Starship Gabbard had been brought back down to Earth.
CNN reported Sunday that Gabbard had once touted working for an anti-gay group that backed conversion therapy. After the story was published, Gabbard issued a statement to CNN explaining that she regretted her past positions and that she has since worked to ensure “equal rights and protections on LGBTQ+ issues.”
But the story and others like it that have long been reported in Hawaii media were soon picked up by other national media. The coverage was not flattering.
The headline in Rolling Stone on Monday read, “Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 Campaign May Be Over Before It Started.” The article linked to a recent profile of Gabbard in The New Yorker that reported in-depth on her former campaign against homosexuality and her ties to spiritual teacher Chris Butler. It also linked to The Intercept’s reporting on her ties to Hindu nationalists.
“She’s also been praised by former KKK grand wizard David Duke, white supremacist Richard Spencer and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon,” Rolling Stone wrote. It also noted that other problematic figures Gabbard has aligned herself with include Bashar Assad of Syria and Abdel Fattah el Sisi of Egypt.
That same day, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono — her colleague from Hawaii — dismissed Gabbard’s 2020 bid, saying she would be looking for someone with a “record of supporting progressive goals.” Gabbard, of course, had attacked Hirono in a guest column in The Hill three days before her announcement, accusing Hirono of “religious bigotry.”
By Tuesday, The Daily Beast was running a story about Hawaii’s young congresswoman with the title: “Why Conservative Media And The Far Right Love Tulsi Gabbard For President.”
It was a tough week, one that also included critical articles from local columnists like the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s David Shapiro (he wrote Sunday, “She’s bashed former President Barack Obama for being too soft on ‘radical Islam,’ quit the Democratic National Committee in a huff to support Bernie Sanders and blasted Hillary Clinton for not giving Sanders enough debates”) to The Forward, a publication with a Jewish-American audience, which wrote this week, “Tulsi Gabbard Zig Zags On Israel From Adelson Embrace To Questions On Gaza.”
On Google, Gabbard’s trend line — which represents search interest in the congresswoman over a one-week period including the day she announced, Jan. 11 — went from a flat line to a huge spike and then gradually back down again in a short time. In other words, a lot of people were trying to learn more about Gabbard over the weekend.
And then they weren’t.
The same was the case with the Google trend line in India over the same time period, where the top rising search query related to Gabbard was “Samoa.” The congresswoman was born in American Samoa.
“Country in Oceania,” Google explained.
“Non-resident Indian and person of Indian origin” came in third in the Indian Google search, behind Barack Obama and ahead of American Samoa — a “Territory.”
Now, other Democrats are getting in the race, making their own headlines and sucking up the limited political oxygen.
Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Obama Cabinet member, declared Saturday. On Tuesday, news broke that New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand had entered, including in an appearance on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — a much bigger platform than Van Jones’ show.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke is considered a serious contender, as is California Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris, who is half-Indian, is vying for the Indian-American vote with Gabbard, who is Hindu. Hence Gabbard’s attack not only on Hirono but also Harris, who questioned the Knights of Columbus background of a Trump judicial nominee.
More Democrats will soon enter, even as presumed frontrunners like Sanders and Joe Biden carry new baggage — in Biden’s case, the desire from Obama for “new blood”; in Sanders’, complaints from 2016 female campaign staffers about sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has plenty of other rising stars, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who gets attention even when she dances. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been running for several weeks now, visiting Iowa and heading to New Hampshire.
This is all happening as Donald Trump continues to dominate everything, but while his hand grows weaker in the government shutdown and in the Russia and other investigations.
Who knows, maybe Tulsi Gabbard will prove she’s ready for prime time. She had to know old stories would surface anew; maybe her strategy is to get them out of the way early in the campaign.
And at the same time she’s running for president she can also run for re-election to the U.S. House, meaning she could keep a job.
But Gabbard can no longer blow off the local press or expect the media (and voters) to disregard her controversial background, record and positions.
Civil Beat data reporting fellow Carlie Procell contributed to this article.
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