MANCHESTER, N.H.—Tulsi Gabbard wasn’t present.
Not physically, at least. But in the small, half-filled Rex Theatre in downtown Manchester, it didn’t seem to matter. While seven of her top Democratic rivals prepared to hit the stage in Los Angeles for the sixth primary debate, a group of Gabbard’s most ardent loyalists were glued to a large-screen projector, where a livestream of Gabbard’s face, fixed between panels of tulle wrapped in twinkling lights, beamed in from Washington, D.C.
“I really wish I could be there to hug you,” she said, to no one in particular.
Citing a conflicting House vote in Congress, the Hawaii Democrat wasn’t in Manchester for her campaign’s much-hyped “party” alternative to Thursday night’s debate, for which she failed to qualify. The party, and the debate, came the day after Gabbard had set Washington ablaze by voting “present” on the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, which occurred for only the third time in the country’s history.
Aides to Democratic presidential candidates often say the topic of impeachment rarely comes up on the campaign trail. Voters, the thinking goes, prefer asking about kitchen table issues, like jobs. But here, it was the first question.
“My decision to vote ‘present’ was a decision to actively protest this zero-sum mentality that rules over our politics today,” the four-term congresswoman told a skeptical attendee of her vote on the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress.
On top of being a self-proclaimed act of protest, Gabbard explained, to delayed applause, her “present” proclamation was an attempt to stand for “our people, our county, and our future.”
“We’re going to continue to see this spiraling downward,” she said.
During the two-hour event, Gabbard’s fiercest fans praised her dovish foreign and liberal domestic policy, a hallmark of her nearly year-long campaign, and asked whether she would ever ditch the Democratic Party, with which she frequently clashes. No, she strongly implied, brushing off naysayers who speculate she may launch a third-party bid, an idea that she has routinely shot down.
Still, at multiple points in the night, she praised nearly every other conceivable party, in addition to her own.
“I appreciate the voice the Libertarian Party brings to this conversation,” Gabbard said. “It is necessary.”
Richard Manzo, the vice chair of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, was in attendance, and had mixed reactions about Gabbard’s impeachment move.
“I wish she would have taken a stance one way or another,” Manzo told The Daily Beast. But it wasn’t enough to change his likely primary vote on Feb. 11. “I’m leaning towards voting for her,” he said.
Mark Colvin, one of Gabbard’s most passionate supporters who drove from Boston to see her video conference through the projector, had no such reservations. “She’s the only one who got it right,” he said about her stance. “She’s a patriot.”
Gabbard has made New Hampshire a top campaign priority in recent weeks, and there are early signs her work is resonating with segments of the electorate, particularly independent voters. As The Daily Beast recently reported, pollsters argue there is evidence to believe Gabbard is already poking holes at the independent bloc that helped sweep Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to victory here in 2016. In a Suffolk University survey conducted in November, Gabbard receives five times as much support among independents as she does among Democrats.
But Thursday night’s set up hardly seemed poll-tested. In fact, the lines between substance and style frequently blurred, with campaign aides moonlighting as singers and poets, and a professional Trump impersonator taking cracks at the commander in chief.
At times, the vibe felt like multiple genres of YouTube were merging on loop: Gabbard’s sister Vrindavan, also known as V, performed a virtual hula dance, while Gabbard and her husband Abraham Williams reminisced about when they were first dating.
“Looking forward to hearing your song later!” Gabbard told a volunteer, one of several she publicly acknowledged from a lengthy roster. At one point, a guitarist with long curly blonde hair wearing a pink lei serenaded audience members.
“Tul-seeeeee, Tulsi 2020,” he sang to attendees, who clapped along enthusiastically. “Everyone! We’re backing Tulsiiiiii, she’s the onlyyyyy choice.”
“If you’re not sure if you’re on key—I would say sing louder!” Gabbard’s Deputy Campaign Manager Caitlin Rose Pomerantz instructed the crowd.
Shortly after, lyrics titled, “We, The People” appeared on the screen, replacing Gabbard. After that, her aide recited a poem with the identical name.
“When we get bitter, that’s when they win,” Rose Pomerantz said. “We are the people who are still alive inside.”