(Bloomberg) -- Most Democratic presidential hopefuls stepped away from the early-state campaign circuit this week to court party insiders at their biggest meeting before votes are cast. But not the front-runner.
Joe Biden chose to campaign elsewhere, while many of his rivals met with donors, took selfies with activists and mingled in the lobby of the San Francisco hotel where the Democratic National Committee is meeting through Saturday.
While aides from opposing campaigns griped that Biden, the former vice president, wasn’t putting in the same effort as their bosses to reach out to party insiders, more than a dozen DNC members said they didn’t have a problem with his decision not to attend and that his time was best spent courting voters.
Skipping a gathering like the DNC annual meeting would have been surprising in years past. Biden, however, can afford to pass it up in part because of the diminished role of party insiders in the nominating process.
For more than three decades, DNC members, Democratic members of Congress and other party elites got individual votes as “super delegates” on the first ballot at the Democratic convention.
But after the super delegates overwhelmingly supported establishment candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, her primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, complained that their role subverted the will of voters. So the party modified its rules to give super delegates a vote only on a potential second ballot.
Still, with so many powerful Democrats in one place and only three candidates polling in the double digits, much of the field made the trip to San Francisco. Early Friday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker greeted supporters in a conference room rented by his team. At lunchtime, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang were both schmoozing their way through the lobby of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square.
Throughout the day Friday, 13 candidates -- including Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who used his speech to drop out of the race -- spoke to the meeting.
Biden appeared by video in washed-out light, promising to campaign for fellow Democrats – including the party’s nominee, if it isn’t him.
“If we stand together, we’ll win the battle for the soul of this nation,” he said in the one-minute spot, which received tepid applause. The crowd’s cheers were louder for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who attacked what he called the DNC’s exclusionary debate rules, and for Julian Castro, who took the stage after the Biden video.
Biden’s campaign manager Greg Schultz said the best use of the front-runner’s time was on the campaign trail and that his candidate’s commitment to the Democratic Party was not defined by showing up at a single meeting.
“He’s with voters making the case for why he should be the Democratic nominee for president,” Schultz told Bloomberg News in the hotel lobby.
Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, was unimpressed.
“Joe Biden is afraid to present himself at Democratic Party functions because there are various elements of the party who are very concerned that he doesn’t represent the rank-and-file,” Weaver said. “That’s why he doesn’t show up. Why’s he going to show up?” Biden is “a dinosaur,” he added.
Schultz said Biden has “a long history of supporting the Democratic Party at every level and everybody here knows that.”
“I will say that Joe Biden has campaigned for more Democrats in more places than anybody else running for president. And if he is fortunate to be the nominee and fortunate to be the president, that’s going to continue,” Schultz said.
Schultz, who travels rarely for the campaign, said he was meeting with members of the DNC executive committee, state party chairs and donors. He was joined by Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the campaign and a DNC member, and Carla Frank, Schultz’s chief of staff.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend Indiana, whose 2017 bid for DNC chair helped raise his national profile, spent Friday in New Hampshire, while former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke scrapped his planned appearance to visit victims of the Aug. 3 El Paso mass shooting with Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who herself survived a mass shooting in 2011.
J.P. Barone, a DNC member from Minnesota, said he agreed with Biden’s approach.
“We were surprised any of them are here at all. Why are they wasting time talking to us? We always want our candidates talking to voters so they should be going to the early states,” Barone said. With the new rules diminishing the power of super delegates, “the fact that they’re coming to spend time with people who don’t vote is an interesting judgment call,” he said.
“All of these candidates can’t be at every event so they choose,” said Bob Mulholland, a California DNC member who is supporting Kamala Harris, his state’s junior senator. “They’re smart enough to figure out where they need to be every day.”
Buttigieg’s campaign sent his husband, Chasten, instead and 10 senior staff members who hosted a reception. Guests were given Buttigieg tote bags that read “Midwestern Millennial Military Mayor” as they walked in. They sipped beer and wine and ate chicken and waffles and banh mi pork meatball sandwiches as they mingled with campaign staff.
“I can’t talk about other candidates,” Booker said when asked about his opponents’ decisions to skip the event. “It was the right thing for me to be here.”
(Updates with Sanders adviser from 13th paragraph.)
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