(Reuters) - Fourteen Democratic presidential hopefuls seeking money and support in California, the most liberal and populous U.S. state, will descend on San Francisco this weekend for a state party convention - with front-runner Joe Biden notably absent.
Appearances by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and other candidates highlight California’s growing importance in the Democratic nominating process. Its 500 delegates are up for grabs three months earlier than in prior years, which could set the tone for the rest of the 2020 race.
Biden, a moderate, will instead attend an event in Ohio, avoiding what may become a raucous convention dominated by the party’s progressive wing. Still, some political experts and party members said Biden risks sending the signal that he is taking California for granted.
San Francisco Democratic Party Chairman David Campos, who supports Sanders, called Biden’s plan “a mistake.”
“He has been expecting some sort of coronation,” Campos said. “But there are no coronations in California.”
Biden’s campaign declined to say why the candidate opted not to attend, and California party officials say they do not know either. Biden is scheduled to speak Saturday night at a Columbus, Ohio, dinner held by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
“In the coming weeks, Vice President Biden is looking forward to returning to California to meet with voters, learn firsthand about their concerns, and ultimately, compete strongly in the state,” Biden spokesman Jamal Brown said in an email to Reuters.
Senior Biden campaign aides will attend the San Francisco convention, Brown said.
Biden is one of 24 Democrats seeking the party’s nomination to run against Republican President Donald Trump in 2020. The former vice president under President Barack Obama has led polls nationally and in California since announcing his candidacy in April.
But experts say the field in California remains wide open. Sanders does not have the state locked up despite his progressive bona fides, nor does Harris, who has won statewide elections in California for attorney general and senator. Her Oakland presidential campaign launch drew 20,000 people.
Sanders, Harris and the dozen other candidates attending the convention will speak in brief appearances on Saturday and Sunday to about 5,000 delegates, guests and journalists gathered in San Francisco. Most of the contenders also plan to address a nearby event by the progressive group MoveOn.org.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff and Governor Gavin Newsom also are expected to attend.
Despite the short speaking slots and the crowd of candidates, attending the convention will be worthwhile for most of the hopefuls, said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. The poll in April showed Biden leading in California with support from 26% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning respondents, followed by Sanders with 18% and Harris with 17%.
“Any candidate right now is chasing Joe Biden,” Malloy said. “And chasing money. And California is the best place to chase the money.”
For Biden, however, the calculation may be different.
Skipping the convention allows him to sidestep potential uncomfortable questions from progressives, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Biden will miss an opportunity to reach out to the party’s left flank but also avoids the risk of saying something that conservatives can use against him later, Sonenshein said.
“It’s a very energetic convention with a lot of people with their own opinions,” Sonenshein said. “What you say to make them happy may come back to haunt you later.”
The move also keeps Biden from appearing to be just one in a crowded field jostling for attention, said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired professor of public policy at the University of Southern California.
Had she been working for Biden, Bebitch Jeffe said, she would have advised him not to attend.
“He doesn’t have to be part of this beauty contest,” she said.
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; additional reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio