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By Robert Windrem and Ben Popken

The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.

An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.

Several experts who track websites and social media linked to the Kremlin have also seen what they believe may be the first stirrings of an upcoming Russian campaign of support for Gabbard.

Since Gabbard announced her intention to run on Jan. 11, there have been at least 20 Gabbard stories on three major Moscow-based English-language websites affiliated with or supportive of the Russian government: RT, the Russian-owned TV outlet; Sputnik News, a radio outlet; and Russia Insider, a blog that experts say closely follows the Kremlin line. The CIA has called RT and Sputnik part of "Russia's state-run propaganda machine."

All three sites celebrated Gabbard's announcement, defended her positions on Russia and her 2017 meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and attacked those who have suggested she is a pawn for Moscow. The coverage devoted to Gabbard, both in news and commentary, exceeds that afforded to any of the declared or rumored Democratic candidates despite Gabbard's lack of voter recognition.

Gabbard was mentioned on the three sites about twice as often as two of the best known Democratic possibilities for 2020, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, each with 10 stories. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren had fewer. In each case, the other contenders were treated more critically than Gabbard, with headlines like "'Don't Run': Vermont Paper Begs Bernie Sanders Not to Seek US Presidency in 2020" and "Sexist much? Biden blames 'conservative blonde woman' for shutdown, 'forgets' Ann Coulter's name."

"Her promulgation of positions compatible with Russian geo strategic interests can help them mainstream such discussion in the [Democratic] party," said Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook and now an NBC News analyst. Gabbard, said Stamos, helps them with all their "lines of attack."

"Will Tulsi Gabbard Shake Up the 2020 Democratic Primary?" by Sputnik News.Sputnik News

A major in the Hawaii Army National Guard who served two tours in Iraq, Gabbard was first elected to Congress in 2012 and represents the out islands and northern Oahu. She attracted attention as a maverick when she resigned as Democratic National Committee vice chair in early 2016 and endorsed Bernie Sanders. She gave his nominating speech at that summer's party convention.

While some of her stances appeal to the left, she has also angered the party's liberal base with her past positions on same sex marriage, abortion and guns. Just weeks after Donald Trump's upset victory over Hillary Clinton, she met with the president-elect at Trump Tower.

But Gabbard's most controversial position and the one where she's most in line with Russian interests is on Syria. She's accused the U.S. of pushing a policy of "regime change" wars and in January 2017, she met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria on what she called a "fact-finding mission."

RT began defending Gabbard as soon as she announced. A behavioral science expert who studies social media tweeted out a vow on Jan. 11 to start a GoFundMe campaign to finance a reporting trip to Gabbard's Hawaii district. Reporters for RT's television network pounced, calling it "an investigative vacation" and a "beachside investigation" by an "establishment Democrat."