Is Russia the big winner in the Clinton-Gabbard clash?

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What's happening:

Hillary Clinton, who has kept a relatively low profile since losing the presidential election in 2016, has been thrust back into the news cycle in an unexpected way: A public clash with low-polling Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard.

Clinton said, on a podcast hosted by former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, that one of the Democratic candidates is a "favorite of the Russians" who is being "groomed" for a third-party presidential run that would boost President Trump's reelection chances. Though she didn't say her name, it was widely accepted that Clinton was referring to Gabbard.

In response, Gabbard called Clinton "the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party."

Since being elected to represent Hawaii in the House of Representatives, Gabbard has at times befuddled the Democratic establishment. Once called an "emerging star" by Nancy Pelosi, Gabbard has bucked the party platform with her opinions on terrorism, Syria policy and her past opposition to LGBTQ equality.

Clinton didn't offer any evidence that Gabbard has courted assistance from Russia, but some experts have tracked online activity that appears to show the country's "propaganda machine" has mobilized to boost her campaign, much in the same way it promoted the third-party candidacy of Jill Stein in 2016.

Why there's debate:

Some pundits see this disagreement as a boost for Gabbard, who has struggled to reach 2 percent in primary polls. A public disagreement with Clinton brings her attention that she's struggled to garner throughout the campaign, while allowing her to flex her antiestablishment bona fides. On the other hand, recent polling suggests Gabbard's presidential campaign might be putting her seat in the House at risk.

Others argue that Russia is the main beneficiary of the dispute. While there's no evidence that Gabbard is partnering with Moscow, Russia appears to see some utility in boosting her campaign. The opportunity to amp up Gabbard's profile while stoking anti-Clinton sentiment could bolster the Kremlin's disinformation campaign, some experts say.

Republicans may also see a cumulative benefit from another "Democrats in disarray" storyline. A third-party run from Gabbard would likely work in Trump's favor in 2020, which may be a factor in the praise she has received from some prominent far-right figures. She has disavowed some of the more extreme supporters.

What's next:

Gabbard remains a long shot in the Democratic primary. She'll have to boost her polling numbers in the next few weeks to qualify for November's debate. She has repeatedly said she had ruled out a third-party run for presidency.


The dispute is a boost to Gabbard's flagging campaign

"The congresswoman from Hawaii is a completely discreditable candidate … but Clinton’s accusation that Gabbard is a tool of the Russians was so blunt and clumsy that it has added new life to a primary bid that should never have existed in the first place." — Tom Nichols, The Atlantic

Gabbard is unwittingly promoting Russia's interests

"Tulsi Gabbard may not be breaking the law, but as somebody who knows Russia recruitment and targeting tactics cold, she is absolutely being used as a Russian unwitting asset. She [is] Russia’s 2016 do-over." — Newsweek columnist Naveed Jamali

Clinton is spreading distrust the same that Russia works to cultivate

"Hillary Clinton, if you’re concerned about disinformation ― what the Russians do, is they spread disinformation and get us divided against each other ― that is what just happened. Just throw out some information ... disinformation, smear somebody." Van Jones, CNN

The disagreement protects Democrats from the possibility of a third-party run by Gabbard

"It’s not what Tulsi does. It’s what voters see. And if she goes third party after this, it will be seen by voters as a move that is aligned with Russia’s interest in the election." — Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden

Conservatives should be wary of seeing Gabbard as an ally

"Gabbard has got some serious military chops. Gabbard is possessed of some seriously bold fighting words against one of America’s most corrupt politicians. But let’s remember: Gabbard is still a far-left Democrat." — Cheryl K. Chumley, Washington Times

Clinton is further tarnishing her legacy

"In short, she’s doubling down on the actual reason why she lost: her palpable contempt for most Americans." — Editorial, New York Post

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images