The shifting Democratic presidential primary was on full display in California on Saturday, with the newest candidate making his first appearance in front of a large group of voters and a home-state senator arguing that her campaign remains vibrant despite her plummet in the polls.
The main draw for many of the 12 White House hopefuls at the state party gathering was an afternoon forum put on by Univision, but much of the action took place elsewhere at the sprawling Long Beach convention center and at nearby restaurants and bars.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who surprised the Democratic field with his late entry into the presidential race on Thursday, said his experience leading his state proved that he has the skills to right the nation in the aftermath of President Trump.
“I am not running, my friends, to be president of the Democrats. I am running to be president of the United States,” he told thousands of delegates and guests at the state party convention. “There’s a difference. I’m not talking about a moderate agenda. This is no time for a moderate agenda. I’m talking about being woke, while leaving room for the still waking.”
Some in the audience chatted through his remarks, and others clapped politely once he finished.
The politician who drew one of the most enthusiastic responses Saturday is not running for the Oval Office, but is leading the impeachment inquiry into Trump — Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank.
“You will forgive me if I’m a bit exhausted. It’s been an eventful week,” he said. “Our democracy is at risk, more so now than any time in my life. … The greatest threat to our democracy comes from within: a president without ethical compass. There is nothing more dangerous than an unethical president who believes he is above the law.”
The gathering took place at the end of a week in which the House launched public impeachment hearings and just over 100 days before California’s March 3 primary. Nearly 500 delegates are at stake, prompting candidates to pay more consideration to the state’s voters than in years past when the primary came late in the election cycle.
“It’s nice to have more attention,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who said he may endorse a candidate before the primary. “I’ll take that as a victory, but we’ll never be Iowa.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris faced great scrutiny over the weekend about her slide in the polls — she came in at 3% in an Iowa poll released Saturday, and at 1% in a recent New Hampshire poll. Convention attendees whispered about stories of dysfunction and tension on her campaign team, reports that Harris denied.
“I am very, very supportive of my campaign, of the people who are working it,” she told reporters. “They’ve done great work, which has gotten us to the point where we are today. And we are focused on what we need to do to move forward.”
Her supporters turned out in force, chanting, “I don’t know what you’ve been told, Kamala is strong and bold,” outside the convention hall and cheering her on as she spoke at a restaurant and then later at a gay bar.
Harris’ political backers argued that she still has a path to victory.
“The only poll that counts is on election day,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters, adding that he planned to campaign for Harris in Iowa.
Harris was among the top eight candidates who spoke at the Univision forum on Saturday. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren skipped the event, drawing ire from state party leaders and the moderators of the event. Moderator Jorge Ramos asked Harris if the pair were taking the Latino vote for granted.
“I’m here,” Harris said. “I think you have to judge people by their conduct and their actions.”
Ramos also pressed Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to declare that the Obama administration, of which Biden was part, made a mistake by deporting more than 3 million people. Harris, an early Obama backer, would not say whether his administration’s deportation policy was a mistake.
But she noted that as California’s attorney general, she disagreed with an Obama-era Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer policy and told the state’s law enforcement agencies that it was not mandatory.
Sanders said the deportations were a mistake, then pivoted to Trump.
“What I’m going to tell you is in fact what the American people want, and they want to stop this ugly demonization of the immigrant community and the racism that is coming from the White House,” Sanders said, pledging that on Day 1 of his presidency he would reestablish legal status for 1.8 million “Dreamers,” young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and their parents.
One of the more moving moments of the forum was when Lorena Pimentel de Salazar spoke about her 13-year-old daughter, who was killed in the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting. In Spanish, she told Sen. Cory Booker of her daughter’s love of animals and asked what he would do to reduce gun violence. Booker responded, at first in Spanish, then switched to English.
“What she’s saying here is not exceptional,” he said, turning to the crowd. “It is personal. I am tired of seeing the No. 1 cause of death for black and brown children in this country is murder. And under my leadership, it will stop.”
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who spoke shortly before a new poll showed him leading in Iowa, defended his more centrist approach that has been criticized by some liberals.
“I also believe that being bold and having good ideas should not be measured by how many people you alienate,” he said. Some of his proposals “are not as extreme as some of the others. But they would still make me the most progressive president of my lifetime.”
Some of the questions were softballs — entrepreneur Andrew Yang was asked about the automation of farm work, allowing him to raise the issue of universal basic income, the foundation of his campaign. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer was asked about climate change, an issue on which he has spent tens of millions of dollars.
Ramos asked Steyer about the crosses he draws in ink on the top of his left hand. The candidate said he drew a cross every day “to remind myself to tell the truth no matter what they do to you.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was among the candidates who spoke to the women’s caucus Saturday morning, saying that there was no need to ask if a woman could beat Trump because “Nancy Pelosi does it every day.”
Garcetti watched the weekend’s spectacle from the sidelines, and when asked whether he was glad he decided not to run, said, “Absolutely.”
“I wouldn’t want to have been in Iowa when the fires were right here and vice versa. Imagine if I was here doing my job as I’m missing the most important pork fry in Iowa,” he said. “No, like not an instant of regret.”
Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.