SAN FRANCISCO — Democratic presidential hopefuls took rival Joe Biden's absence at a California state party gathering Saturday as a chance to take subtle digs at the former vice president and craft themselves as better positioned to bring Democrats into the future.
Meanwhile, Colorado's John Hickenlooper drew booes from the liberal party activists as he said Democratic candidates should not embrace socialism in their quest for the White House.
He was the first Democratic presidential candidate to be booed during a daylong slate of candidate speeches.
"Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses," another candidate, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said in a clear reference to Biden's comments that the GOP may have an "epiphany" after President Donald Trump is gone. "But our country is in a crisis. The time for small ideas is over."
Hickenlooper and Warren were among 14 presidential contenders in San Francisco for a three-day gathering of the California Democratic Party, featuring thousands of fervent activists.
Biden was the only big-name candidate to skip the gathering, opting instead to campaign in Ohio. That allowed Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris and others a chance to grab the spotlight.
California has shifted its 2020 primary earlier on the calendar, to March 3, part of the Super Tuesday collection of contests, in hopes of giving the state more sway in choosing the party's nominee.
California will offer the largest delegate haul, but it is a notoriously difficult state to campaign in, given its massive size -- 1.6 times Colorado's area and seven times its population -- and expensive media markets.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has endorsed Harris, downplayed the importance of Biden's absence.
"Joe Biden's very familiar to Californians. He spent a great deal of time in California," Newsom said, a remark that highlighted Biden's advantage when it comes to name recognition.
Biden, speaking to thousands of activists at the Human Rights Campaign's Ohio gala Saturday night in Columbus, didn't mention his rivals but blasted Trump and his record on LGBTQ issues.
He indirectly answered the criticism that he thinks small by noting that the Democratic House recently passed the Equality Act, which would enshrine LGBTQ protections in U.S. civil rights law. Biden said that Democrats had the majority because they were able to win in moderate and Republican-leaning districts.
"We didn't have to be radical about anything," he said. "They talked about basic, fundamental rights."
In San Francisco, Warren's remarks served as the most direct jab at Biden, but 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seemed to draw a contrast with the 76-year-old Biden when he said Democrats won't win if they bring more of the same to the 2020 contest.
"The riskiest thing we can do is play it safe," Buttigieg declared. "There's no going back to normal."
Biden's backers have argued he's the party's best and safest choice to defeat Trump.
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Californian who remains at the bottom of the pack, also referenced Biden as he said "we don't need a crime bill — we need a hope bill." Biden has taken heat from some rivals for his support of a crime bill in the early 1990s that critics say spurred mass incarceration.
One of those rivals is Harris, though she made no direct or indirect references to Biden during her Saturday morning speech, instead highlighting her policy plans and bringing the crowd to its feet with calls to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Harris received the prime spot of speaking first Saturday and sought to flex her home-state muscle by referencing her near-decade as a statewide elected official. Her campaign even emblazoned the official convention lanyards that thousands of Democrats wore all weekend with Harris's name.
"The thing I love about California Democrats is we are never afraid of a fight," she said. "And we know right now we've got a fight on our hands."
Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker received perhaps the most enthusiastic response from the crowd, drawing people to their feet on multiple occasions. Warren reprised her "I've got a plan for that" slogan to raucous cheers as she pledged bold action on a variety of topics, including breaking up "big tech," a strong rebuke in the home of Silicon Valley.
"Some Democrats in Washington believe the only change we can get are tweaks and nudges — if they dream at all, they dream small," she said.
Booker referenced Friday's fatal shooting in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which left 12 people dead. Declaring he'd have plenty of time to talk about himself, he told the party that the election is about more than finding a "savior" and simply beating Trump.
"It can't be the call to beat Republicans. It must be the call to unite Americans in common cause and common purpose to tear down the injustices that still exist," he said.
Most candidates sought to bring California-specific elements into their speeches or burnish their liberal credentials.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke slipped seamlessly between Spanish and English, a key move in a state with a large Hispanic population, while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee highlighted his fight to raise the minimum wage and enact aggressive policies to fight climate change.
But Hickenlooper took a different tack, eliciting boos when he declared "socialism is not the answer" to enacting progressive policies and beating Trump.
“I’m making the case that the Republicans have already demonstrated that they want to tie Democrats to socialism,” he said in an interview before his convention speech. “They tried to do it in the midterms. And if you look at all the midterm candidates who won in the swing states, they were pragmatic problem-solvers and they rejected those labels of socialism.”
“I think the same thing is going to happen at the national level,” said Hickenlooper, who has dissociated himself from Medicare for All. “We have to distance ourselves from the baggage that’s tied to the word socialism.”
As the governor spoke about health care in his convention speech, a man in the audience raised his hand to give him the middle finger.
The former Colorado governor quickly highlighted the negative reaction on his Twitter account: "I know this message won't be popular with everyone in our party. But the stakes are too high. We cannot hand this election to Donald Trump."
Hickenlooper says he's been successful in Colorado by taking a "pragmatic approach" and not demonizing the private sector.
His remarks earned him a swipe from Inslee, who told the crowd he's the governor "who thinks we shouldn't be ashamed of our progressive values."
Other candidates who spoke Saturday were New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Former Obama housing chief Julian Castro and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney were scheduled to speak Sunday after Sanders.
Kathleen Ronayne and Nicholas Riccardi, Associated Press and Tarini Parti and Emily Glazer of The Wall Street Journal contributed.