WASHINGTON — If there was an undercard at Wednesday’s presidential primary debate in Atlanta you might say it was Tulsi Gabbard vs. Kamala Harris, Round 2.
Or maybe it was Gabbard vs. Pete Buttigieg, the surging Indiana mayor.
The Hawaii congresswoman sparred with both Harris and Buttigieg at different points in the debate over her views on the future of the Democratic Party and the use of military resources to combat drug cartels in Mexico.
The jabs harkened back to previous encounters between the candidates in which Gabbard attacked Harris for her record as a prosecutor and went toe to toe with Buttigieg over President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the U.S.’s Kurdish allies in Syria.
Gabbard’s first question from the moderators came nearly 24 minutes into the two-hour debate.
She was asked about her recent spat with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said during a podcast interview that Republicans were “grooming” Gabbard to be a third-party spoiler candidate and that she was a “favorite of the Russians.”
Gabbard’s response to Clinton was swift. She called the former first lady the “queen of the warmongers” and described her as the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.”
On Wednesday, when Gabbard was asked to expand on her critiques of the party, she described it as one that was supportive of American imperialism abroad and the toppling of dictators.
“Our Democratic Party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by and for the people,” Gabbard said.
“It is a party that has been and continues to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington represented by Hillary Clinton and others’ foreign policy, by the military industrial complex and other greedy corporate interests.”
Gabbard, a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, then compared Clinton’s foreign policy views to those of Donald Trump and former president George W. Bush.
In an awkward pivot, a moderator asked Harris, the U.S. senator from California, to respond.
The two candidates have a history. In the lead up to the July debate, Gabbard said during an interview on Fox Sports Radio that Harris was “not qualified” to be president.
At the debate she continued her attacks, but instead took full-bodied swings at Harris’s record as California’s attorney general.
On Wednesday, Harris had the opportunity to punch back.
“It’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” Harris said.
She said Gabbard “buddied up” to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Trump at Trump Tower in New York shortly after he was elected.
She also criticized Gabbard over her visit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who’s been accused of using chemical weapons against his own people — and her apprehension to call him a “war criminal.”
“What we need on the stage in November is someone who has the ability to win,” Harris said.
Gabbard responded without addressing any of the specifics.
“What Senator Harris is doing is unfortunately continuing to traffic in lies and smears and innuendos because she cannot challenge the substance of the argument that I’m making,” Gabbard said.
It wasn’t the only heated exchange of the night for Gabbard, who didn’t get many opportunities to break through in part because she’s one of the lowest polling candidates.
When asked about voting rights, she pivoted to an attack on Buttigieg.
Gabbard questioned whether the South Bend, Indiana mayor, who served as a naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan, was experienced enough to run the country.
She pointed to recent comments he made about his willingness, if elected, to send U.S. troops to Mexico to help the country combat the drug cartels there. Gabbard called Buttigieg’s statements “careless.”
Veterans Gabbard and Buttigieg go head-to-head on foreign policy, debate U.S. forces in Mexico and meeting with Assad.pic.twitter.com/CYvrMF4i3Q
“I know that it’s par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context,” Buttigieg said, “but that is outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics.”
“Are you saying that you didn’t say that?” Gabbard asked.
“I was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation,” Buttigieg said. “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?”
He didn’t stop there. Buttigieg then defended himself from Gabbard’s criticisms of his experience by raising questions about her judgment, and in particular her willingness to meet with Assad, someone he described as a “murderous dictator.”
Gabbard said his refusal to meet with an adversary only showed a “lack of courage.” She then went on to compare herself to former U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, all of whom, she said, met with friends and foes alike.
“I’ll bring real leadership and experience to the White House,” Gabbard said.
Wednesday’s debate might be the last for Gabbard, who continues to poll lower than other candidates.
She barely made the debate stage in Atlanta due to her low survey numbers, and has yet to meet the Democratic National Committee’s polling and fundraising thresholds to qualify for the December contest.
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