Tulsi Gabbard brings her campaign to Utah ahead of Super Tuesday vote, preaching a message of unity to heal a ‘divided country’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Representative for Hawaii' and Democratic presidential candidate, delivers her stump speech at a "meet the candidate" event at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, Feb. 21, 2020.

During a campaign event Friday at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard called for unity and an end to hyper-partisanship to heal the wounds of a “terribly divided country.”

For Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran and representative from Hawaii, that’s an end goal of her presidential race in and of itself. But the candidate also sees it as an essential part of getting anything done on Capitol Hill if she were to beat the odds and win election.

“This is about a deeper, systemic changes that we need to see in Washington so that we can truly have a government that is of the people, by the people and for the people,” she told a group of more than 150 people during her prepared remarks ahead of a town-hall style Q&A session.

Among the changes she’d like to see, Gabbard said, are campaign finance reform to end political donations from Political Action Committees, corporations and special interests; a redistribution of wealth to help people who are “just trying to afford life;” and an end to wasteful military spending, like the $4 billion a month she said is currently being spent keeping troops in Afghanistan.

Gabbard also spoke about her environmental platform, which calls for moving away from fossil fuels toward a clean, renewable energy economy and transitioning government subsidies from the “farming practices of the past” in favor of regenerative agriculture.

If elected, Gabbard says she would bring a “fresh perspective” to the Oval Office, but one “backed up with the experience necessary to turn that vision into a reality” as a soldier and a member of Congress focused on national security and foreign policy.

And while she didn’t criticize Trump as harshly as some of her opponents have — saying only that he is “not fit to be president and commander-in-chief” — she also said she’s not afraid of him.

“There’s a lot of talk about Trump being a bully,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Tulsi, you’re too nice, you’re a surfer girl from Hawaii. How are you going to stand up to Trump?’ … I was in Iraq during the height of the war and I served in a medical unit and we all were confronted every single day with that possibility that that day could be our last. So I got nothing to fear from Donald Trump.”

Gabbard’s event drew both undecided voters and diehard supporters, one of whom told The Salt Lake Tribune he had driven from Colorado to see her speech.

Salt Lake City resident April Larsen, a 34-year-old who lived in Hawaii when Gabbard was first elected to Congress in 2012, came to the campaign event decked out in a hat and sweater bearing the candidate’s name.

“What I love about her is she calls out the B.S. of the system and she is brave as a soldier as well as a politician to say what she has a right to say,” Larsen said in an interview, adding that Gabbard’s calls for unity appeal to her as a liberal voter living in a conservative red state.

“She knows that she can say, ‘I’m not going to go one way or another; I’m going to stay in the center,” she said.

But while Gabbard’s message resonated with University of Utah students Solveig Christianson and Liz Romrell, both said they’ll likely vote in their first ever presidential elections for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won handily among Utah Democrats during his presidential primary race in 2016.

“I support people like Tulsi and I support people like Cory Booker" (a Democrat who dropped out of the presidential race last month), said Christiansen, 19, as she waited in line for a photo with Gabbard. “But at some point you have to decide if they’re not going to win, if they’re so far behind, who you’re going to vote for when it comes down to it so [your vote] doesn’t just go to waste.”

Gabbard has so far failed to break through in the polls, trailing far behind the Democratic front-runners in recent nationwide surveys. She did not qualify for Wednesday’s presidential debate in Las Vegas and received 1% in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released that same day.

But as Super Tuesday draws nearer, Gabbard said she sees potential to pick up delegates in the Beehive State.

“Utah is an important state amongst the Super Tuesday states,” she said in an interview with reporters after the event. “Unfortunately Utah voters don’t get much attention, it appears, during the presidential elections, and so I wanted to come here and be able to have the kind of conversations we’re having across the country with Utah voters to make sure their voices are heard.”

Gabbard was scheduled to hold three more events this week, including a town hall Friday night at Pierpont Place at 163 W. Pierpont Ave. and a town hall at the Marriott Hotel at 101. W. 100 North in Provo on Saturday. She also planned a “snowboarding with Tulsi” meet up Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. at Snowbird ski resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

For decades, Utah rarely saw presidential candidates because its primaries or caucuses were late in the process — often after winners were determined. So leaders moved up this year’s primary to Super Tuesday on March 3, along with 13 others states, seeking more attention.

So far it’s worked, with Gabbard the third presidential candidate to visit Utah this week alone.

Former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew a big crowd in Salt Lake City on Monday and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted his second in-person event in the state on Thursday. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have also made their appeal to Utah voters during this campaign cycle.

On the Republican side, former Gov. Bill Weld of Massachusetts visited Salt Lake City and Provo on Friday. Trump has not returned to Utah during the current election cycle but did campaign here in 2016.