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Tulsi Gabbard campaign in disarray

The surprise announcement of a 2020 presidential bid left Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s aides working frantically on a Friday night to get everything up online for the Hawaii Democrat. | Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, File/AP Photo

Tulsi Gabbard’s presidential campaign hasn’t officially launched yet but it’s already melting down.

Two-and-a-half weeks after she told CNN she had decided to run for the White House—an announcement that even her own staff didn’t know was coming, after weeks of debating the timing of the rollout—the 37-year-old congresswoman has struggled to contain the chaos.

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Campaign manager Rania Batrice and Gabbard’s consulting firm Revolution Messaging are set to depart after this weekend’s official kickoff in Hawaii, two sources familiar with the situation told POLITICO. Gabbard is leaning on her sister, Vrindavan, to fill the void.

Meanwhile, the congresswoman is under fire back home after picking a fight with Sen. Mazie Hirono, and a prominent Democratic state lawmaker is already challenging Gabbard in next year’s congressional primary. That means she faces the possibility of losing the presidential race and her House seat as well.

For years, Gabbard has been regarded as a rising star within the Democratic Party, and supporters hoped that she could use a presidential bid to at least pressure party elites toward a non-interventionist foreign policy. But her early campaign stumbles and problems back home—where at times she’s boasted sky-high approval ratings—call into question whether the Hawaii lawmaker can compete on the national stage.

Batrice is an experienced campaign operative and recently served as deputy campaign manager for Bernie Sanders’ insurgent 2016 bid. But the tumultuous rollout over the last several weeks suggested that there was a disconnect between the candidate and her team.

Gabbard’s campaign downplayed the departures, as did Batrice and Revolution Messaging.

“Rania Batrice is a long-time advisor and friend and remains so,” Erika Tsuji, a campaign spokesperson, told POLITICO. She added that Revolution Messaging was hired just for the campaign launch and “we appreciate the work they’ve done to that end.”

Batrice likewise described Gabbard as a close friend and said “it’s been an honor to work with her over the last few years. I wish her all the best as she mounts her historic campaign.”

But the losses of Batrice and Revolution Messaging are almost certain to further disrupt what was already an underdog candidacy beset by turmoil.

Three people familiar with the presidential bid over the past few months describe a candidate at the helm who managed to be both indecisive and impulsive. Just announcing her candidacy became a mini-saga that exhausted and bewildered people involved.

At first, Gabbard had vendors and staffers working through Thanksgiving weekend to get everything ready for a campaign rollout, only to pull back. Over the following several weeks, she went up to the starting line again — signaling to her team that a green light was imminent — only to make repeated retreats.

Michael Bloomberg

The pattern of false starts continued through Christmas and New Year’s, frustrating people who worked through the holidays.

When Gabbard did finally announce that she would make a 2020 run, her team was blindsided. “I have decided to run and will be making a formal announcement within the next week,” she told CNN on a Friday night in a pre-taped interview for “The Van Jones Show.”

The Gabbard campaign website was not fully set to go live. Social media posts weren’t ready to be sent out. And Gabbard hadn’t signed off on the launch video.

The surprise announcement left Gabbard’s aides working frantically on a Friday night to get everything up online. Jones himself was surprised by her announcement and did not expect it to come on his show, but added that he was delighted that she made it there.

In the days after the CNN announcement, the campaign appeared to be frozen. Gabbard’s Instagram page occasionally posted 2020-style videos as she traveled back and forth between Hawaii and Washington for votes. But unlike other likely or declared candidates, Gabbard didn’t follow up her announcement with a trip to any of the early 2020 presidential primary states, a routine move for any federal officeholder thinking about running for president.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters.

Gabbard did ultimately release a launch video on Jan. 24, thirteen days after her CNN interview. The campaign plans to have a formal kickoff in Hawaii on Feb. 2.

Meanwhile, Gabbard has faced a backlash in Hawaii. Her public feud with home-state senator Hirono infuriated other Democratic politicians and activists in the state. She spent a week apologizing for her past comments opposing gay marriage and work for an anti-gay group run by her father.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s editorial board weighed in against her candidacy. And state Sen. Kai Kahele, a fellow Democrat, recently declared his candidacy for Gabbard’s congressional district. Days after he announced, the powerhouse liberal group Daily Kos, which directed millions of dollars to Democratic candidates in 2017 and 2018, endorsed Kahele.

The group called Gabbard “at odds with her party’s core beliefs” in a blistering statement criticizing her on abortion, guns and foreign policy.

Kahele painted his candidacy as a remedy to the neglect Gabbard’s district has felt under her tenure.

“My sense is the challenges that face the district are real,” Kahele said in an interview. “I know that this bid for the presidency is going to take up a lot of her time. It’s going to take up a lot of her energy.”

The conflicts have robbed Gabbard’s long-shot campaign of any early momentum. Though she was one of the few members of Congress to back Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, that endorsement has bought Gabbard little goodwill among Sanders supporters in Hawaii, said Tim Vandeveer, a former state party chairman who backed Sanders in 2016.

“I think that proximity doesn’t translate to support,” Vandeveer said. “I have yet to talk to a single Bernie Sanders supporter … who is supporting Tulsi over Bernie.”

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