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Calif. Democratic Party Convention Offers Spotlight To Presidential Candidates


Sorry, Iowa and New Hampshire. This weekend, California was the center of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Fourteen candidates came to San Francisco to speak to the state's Democratic Party. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was one of several who used the appearance to take a not-so-subtle jab at the former Vice President Joe Biden.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: In these times, Democrats can no more keep a promise to take us back to the 2000s or the 1990s than conservatives can keep a promise to take us back to the 1950s. We can only look forward.

MARTIN: NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow was also there. He joins us from San Francisco. Hey, Scott.


MARTIN: Joe Biden wasn't physically present. Sounds, though, like his presence was still looming large.

DETROW: Yeah. And, you know, to be clear, nobody said Joe Biden's name. But he was the clear subtext to a lot of these speeches - from Buttigieg, from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They all used their appearances to go after a return-to-the-status-quo message, to go after a more moderate brand of politics, which have been big themes of Biden's campaign so far. Here's Warren blasting who she called Washington Democrats.


ELIZABETH WARREN: And some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream at all, they dream small. Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a time of crisis.

DETROW: Biden was campaigning in Ohio. He was speaking at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, so he wasn't able to respond in person. But it's really clear that these candidates, who are all trailing Biden in the polls, are starting to test out attacks on his worldview, on his campaign. So far, there really hasn't been much candidate-on-candidate criticism in this race. But I think that could change in a matter of weeks, especially when all of the candidates are on the debate stage at the same time at this first debate that's going to happen in Miami at the end of the month.

MARTIN: So this gathering happened after we saw this mass shooting in Virginia Beach on Friday. Twelve people were killed in that. The shooter also died. You can imagine Democrats seizing on something like this and talking - using it to talk about gun control. But I understand that didn't happen.

DETROW: No, not really. And it - and that was really surprising. You know, in the past, a big shooting like this happens, and it really disrupts a campaign. And it's all people talk about. Fourteen candidates spoke at this convention, and no one mentioned Virginia Beach other than one or two glancing references until toward the very end, when New Jersey Senator Cory Booker did.


CORY BOOKER: But here, just yesterday, we had another mass shooting in our country. Twelve Americans died. And we are seeing the normalization of mass murder in our country.

DETROW: And I think this is evidence that, on that point, he's right. This is a room where people were very much in favor of gun control. Candidates have really aggressive gun control policies they've been campaigning on. And yet, no one felt the need to adapt their message or respond directly to this shooting. It just felt like it was another news story happening in the background.

MARTIN: A weird thing happened to Senator Kamala Harris too during this event.

DETROW: Yeah, definitely a very weird thing. It was a little bit scary at first. This was at a separate event sponsored by MoveOn. She was speaking on a stage, and a protester rushed the stage and grabbed her microphone. He didn't try to harm her. He just wanted to take the mike and talk about animal rights. But that really wasn't clear at the time. Harris was very calm. She just slowly walked away as people tried to get this guy off the stage. Notably, her husband, Doug Emhoff, jumped onto the stage and was one of the people grabbing the microphone back and pushing him away from Harris.

MARTIN: NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow for us. Thanks so much, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.