Government

In Iowa, Tulsi Gabbard supporters see signs

She pins hopes on piquing the interest of passersby

A billboard supporting 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, stands in a field over Williamsburg. While the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates is building robust operations with field offices and strategists in Iowa to boost poll numbers and to build momentum, Gabbard’s campaign is banking on something different: prolifically posting signs. (Daniel Acker/Washington Post)
A billboard supporting 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, stands in a field over Williamsburg. While the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates is building robust operations with field offices and strategists in Iowa to boost poll numbers and to build momentum, Gabbard’s campaign is banking on something different: prolifically posting signs. (Daniel Acker/Washington Post)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — As a military veteran himself, Bart Bryant appreciates how Hawaiian U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard still is serving in the Army National Guard — even taking two weeks off from her presidential campaign for training.

The soon-to-be-37-year old from Cedar Rapids had supported Donald Trump in the last election. And while he says he continues to back the president “in a sense,” he understands why some — himself included — have grown weary.

“Maybe the dude needs to chill on Twitter,” he said.

Their shared interest in the military is one of the reasons Gabbard has been getting his attention. But so is her demeanor and performance on the debate stage.

“I mean, I haven’t really gone out of my way to kind of spread the word but I posted a little bit on Facebook here and there and you know, just kind of seen a couple signs around town before I knew who she was and then just kind of saw a few videos on Facebook and thought, you know, this seems like someone’s really got it put together,” he said.

He went to one of her campaign events, where she handed out copies of the Constitution, and eventually held an event for her in the backyard of his Cedar Rapids home.

He put up some tiki torches and strung up some lights. He stuck a campaign sign of hers in the yard so people would know it was the right house. His mother and Gabbard’s mother both made chili. About 40 people showed up.

Gabbard spoke for about an hour and received polite applause. Some of his neighbors were as impressed as he was, he recalled. Days later, three more signs were in his neighborhood. “Tulsi,” they read.

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While the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates is building robust operations with field offices and strategists in Iowa to boost poll numbers and to build momentum, Gabbard’s campaign is banking on something different: prolifically posting signs.

In parts of the state, Gabbard’s image is more visible than any other Democratic candidate’s. There are billboards along highways in Dubuque and Davenport. They appear near a Walmart in Mason City and over a restaurant in Des Moines.

There are yard signs placed on homes with peeling paint and overflowing trash. There are signs in yards near the state fairgrounds, including one surrounded by a Halloween-ready graveyard of cardboard tombstones and cobwebs.

For a campaign polling in the low single digits with virtually no campaign infrastructure in this first-in-the-nation caucus state, the visibility campaign might not prove a winning strategy for Gabbard — but it amplifies the appearance of influence in the Democratic primary.

Campaign officials say they hope that the billboards will draw in voters who will be interested enough to look her up on the internet — and connect to her reservoir of online support from a very unusual mix of peace-loving noninterventionists, moderates looking for an anti-establishment Democrat, white supremacists, veterans and social media users who sometimes refer to her as “Mommy.”

It’s that moderate approach that gets the attention of Bryant, who works for a company that makes rock crushing equipment.

“I think Tulsi would be a better candidate to kind of unify our country because the polarity of political division we have,” he said. “I think it is kind of poisoning our nation. So I think we need somebody that isn’t too far this way or too far that way, but kind of Baby Bear porridge on the political spectrum.”

Some Democrats, how ever, see a different Gabbard — one who could cause party fractures.

Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton this month gave voice to the worry that Gabbard — a frequent critic of the Democratic National Committee who has become a regular on Fox News and met with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad — might be a “Russian asset.”

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Clinton went on speculate Gabbard is being “groomed” to run as a third-party candidate, threatening to sap votes from the eventual nominee and assist the reelection of Trump.

Gabbard hit Clinton back hard, calling her “queen of warmongers” who disrespected someone who had served in active duty. Gabbard has repeatedly denied any interest in running as a third-party candidate in the general election.

But fears of a third-party run only increased when Gabbard later said she won’t run for reelection to Congress.

If she chooses that route, voters such as Matthew Hunt say they will cast their ballots for her anyway. Hunt, a 53-year-old service technician, saw her campaign sign in Mason City and looked her up — and became a supporter.

“Mayor Pete didn’t impress me, and Elizabeth Warren, I feel, she’s walking the DNC’s line,” Hunt said. “Joe Biden’s too old school. And Bernie — nothing against age, but I think he’s too old now. Beto O’Rourke, when he came out and said you’re going take out AR-15s — that was enough for me,” Hunt said. “Tulsi is my pick.”

It’s this early commitment that might give Gabbard outsized power in Democratic politics.

But with merely $2.5 million cash on hand reported for her campaign, Gabbard must find ways to convert voters with a passing interest ginned up by a sign into evangelists for her candidacy.

And without much of a field operation, that will be a tough chore.

“Two men just came up and asked me if they could put a sign there,” recalled Fred Lee, 74, as he tried fixing his old car in his Des Moines driveway, near the front yard with a “Tulsi” sign. “I said I don’t care.”

Lee said he has never voted before but that he plans to vote in 2020. He has been more consumed with fixing his car than anything and could name only two candidates.

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“Joe Biden’s running, ain’t he?” Lee said. “Him, and Tulsi. I don’t even know her last name. Tulsi is her first name, right?”

The Washington Post and James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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