By Colby Itkowitz / The Washington Post
There are fresh battles lines in the 2020 presidential campaign, reflecting an unpredictable rivalry between two Democratic politicians — one who isn’t even running this cycle and another who is polling at barely 1%.
Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested this week that current primary contender Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is being used by the Russians, who could be plotting a third party run to siphon votes from the eventual Democratic nominee. It’s a scenario that Clinton is sensitive to, since she blames Russian election interference and Green Party candidate Jill Stein for her loss to President Donald Trump.
Gabbard, in a scathing response, called Clinton “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.”
“It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me,” Gabbard wrote on Twitter. “Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”
Clinton has not responded, but her spokesman, Nick Merrill, told CNN, “If the nesting doll fits.”
Merrill, in an interview Saturday, said Clinton was “not saying Americans are Russian spies, but that Russia has found ways to take advantage and is not being held responsible by anyone in government.”
Few outside of Clinton’s immediate orbit defended her comments. The closest anyone came was Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who retweeted Gabbard’s reaction to Clinton with a viral gif from the June debate when he glanced “side eyed” — a look that often conveys shock or disdain — at another candidate.
On the campaign trail, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., refused to engage, saying, “I’m sure Secretary Clinton can defend herself.”
But two of the nonpoliticians in the Democratic primary, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson, sided with Gabbard.
Yang tweeted that Gabbard, a veteran, “deserves much more respect and thanks than this.” Williamson accused the Democratic establishment of “smearing women it finds inconvenient.”
“The character assassination of women who don’t toe the party line will backfire. Stay strong TulsiGabbard. You deserve respect and you have mine,” Williamson tweeted.
Notably, Clinton – who made the comments on a podcast hosted by David Plouffe, a former advisor to President Barack Obama – never used Gabbard’s name. But Gabbard is the only female candidate in the Democratic primary who has been accused of having ties to Russia.
“I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said.
Gabbard has repeatedly ruled out running as a third party candidate. But she has been courted to run in the general election outside the Democratic Party by activists who believe the two-party system is corrupt and should be cast aside.
Stein has suggested in the past that Gabbard “should become a Green” because her comments were “similar to our message.”
In the podcast interview, Clinton also accused Stein, who won more votes in several states than Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton, of being a tool of the Russians.
“Yes, she’s a Russian asset, I mean, totally,” Clinton said. “They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate.”
While it’s unclear why Clinton initiated this fight, the bad blood between her and Gabbard goes back to 2016, when Gabbard quit her post as a Democratic National Committee vice chair so she could endorse Clinton’s primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Gabbard was back on the campaign trail Saturday, holding two town hall meetings in Iowa, including one in the town of Clinton.