SAN FRANCISCO — With the introductory stage of the Democratic presidential primary now over, the lines of engagement are beginning to take shape. And what is emerging is a primary that is no longer one nominating contest, but two.
The first, occurring wherever Joe Biden materializes, is the front-runner’s campaign against himself — his history of failed presidential elections,his propensity for gaffes, his need to adhere to new “boundaries of protecting personal space.”
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The other includes everyone else.
Nowhere were the two tracks of the primary more stark than over the weekend, when Biden positioned himself in Ohio, far from the horde of other Democratic contenders. While more than half the field jostled at the California Democratic Party convention here — the largest single state party gathering in the nation — the former vice president had the lectern to himself at a Human Rights Campaign dinner on Saturday, contrasting his candidacy not with any Democrat, but with the Republican president.
His counter-programming appearance served the latest reminder that, with large leads in national and several early state polls, Biden is running a race in a vacuum, adhering to his own rules and schedule. The biggest threats to his campaign at the moment aren’t his rivals so much as his advanced age and ability to remain disciplined in an era where missteps are under heightened scrutiny.
The other Democratic primary, consuming everyone else, is to see who can pull within striking distance and emerge as one of the handful of contenders still standing after the four early states vote next February.
“It’s like an Alaskan dog sled,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California. “If you’re not the lead dog, the view is the same all day long … Biden, as the leader, doesn’t need to be at every weekend barbecue.”
Alex Gallardo-Rooker, first vice chair of the California state party, said that she had spoken with Biden on the telephone and that he was only not attending because he had committed to the Human Rights Campaign dinner, a sentiment echoed by the Biden campaign.
But the explanation was not universally believed. One of Biden’s rivals, California Sen. Kamala Harris, tossed her hands in the air when she was asked about Biden’s absence, while a Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated with any candidate called the scheduling of a conflicting event elsewhere “brilliant,” adding, “The scheduler who found that event and locked him into that deserves a raise.”
Unlike other candidates, said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps elections in the state, “Joe Biden does not need to come to California to introduce himself to the people in that hall.”
“He does not need to come to that convention and engage in a scrum with all those other candidates,” Sragow said, “because to some extent, the justification for his candidacy is we have an incredible array of candidates who are all duking it out, they’re all beating each other up on the playground, and at some point Uncle Joe, or Grandpa Joe, has to show up on the playground and say, ‘Now, now, let’s get down to business.’ And that’s his candidacy.”
Biden and the other candidates, he said, are “just not on an equal playing field.”
That was never clearer than in San Francisco, where the other Democratic primary took place. Fourteen different candidates — the largest menagerie of Democrats assembled in a single locale to date — all scrambled for attention in the sweat- and booze-soaked halls of the state party convention.
In his absence from their warring, Biden’s opponents lobbed veiled criticisms from afar. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that while “some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges … the time for small ideas is over.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said “the riskiest thing we could do is try too hard to play it safe.” Sen. Bernie Sanders warned Sunday, “We cannot go back to the old ways. We have got to go forward with a new and progressive agenda.”
Yet even that rhetoric appeared designed less to pull Biden down than to gain separation from the multitude of others running behind him. Warren’s call for free college tuition, universal preschool and a cancellation of student debt drew a roar from the audience that did not upstage Biden, but Harris, the home-state senator.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke opened his main speech at the event with more than one minute of remarks in Spanish. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Rep. John Delaney, appealing to more moderate Democrats beyond the convention floor, knowingly got themselves booed.
“It was sort of the Cold War, and now it’s starting to heat up,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist watching the convention from the back of the room. “Now they’re all seeing each other up close and in person. It’s game on.”
The emergence of the dual-track primary reflects a turning point in the campaign. For months, the primary had unfolded at a cautious distance – a wash of candidates largely sidestepping each other as they swept into early nominating states and onto the nation’s airwaves. But the unexpected resilience and seeming durability of Biden’s candidacy has forced a quickening of the pace.
“With this many candidates,” said Anthony Rendon, the Democratic speaker of the California state Assembly, “there’s going to be a point at which people are just going to start paying a heck of a lot more attention to the folks who are in the upper half.”
For the lowest-polling contenders, the effort to gain a foothold in the primary is becoming dire. With the end of the second fundraising quarter and the first primary debate looming this month, Biden isn’t even on their radar.
In a performance that would be followed closely by Delaney the next day, Hickenlooper, who is polling at about 1 percent nationally, generated rare media interest on Saturday with a rebuke of expansive government.
“Socialism is not the answer,” he said to jeers.
Another low-polling Democrat, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, seized the moment immediately afterward, introducing himself to delegates as “a governor who doesn’t think we should be ashamed of our progressive values.”
Hickenlooper said in an interview before his address that he was not planning to get booed, but he understood the risks of his message before such an activist audience. “I’m speaking not just to that room, but I’m speaking to a broader audience, right?” he said. “And so, if I get some catcalls, it’s OK.”