CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) - Joe Biden was not in the banquet hall for the Iowa Democratic Party's blockbuster fundraiser on Sunday where 19 of his party's presidential candidates spoke. But he was present in the veiled criticism from several of his rivals.
In five-minute chunks of speaking time, the candidates got the chance to make their case before 1,400 of the most influential Democrats in the leadoff caucus state. Some chose to nudge the national front-runner, and leader in a new Iowa poll, without naming him.
The sharpest jabs came from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who painted Biden as too cautious at a time he argued demands stark change.
Sanders, who trails only Biden in the polls, described a "well-intentioned" candidate pursuing "a middle-ground strategy that antagonizes no one, that stands up to nobody and that changes nothing."
"In my view that approach is not just bad public policy but it is a failed political strategy that I feel could end up with the re-election of Donald Trump," Sanders said.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose quiet, Midwestern approach and profile as 37-year-old Afghanistan veteran and married gay man has captured some Iowans' attention, also not so subtly challenged the idea that Biden's experience made him the best party standard bearer.
"We're not going to win by playing it safe or promising a return to normal," Buttigieg said. "We are where we are because normal broke. ... Democrats can no more promise a return to the '90s than Republicans can deliver on a promise to return us to the '50s."
Biden skipped the Cedar Rapids event, the largest gathering of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to date and what amounted to an afternoon-long political talent show. Many of those attending used it as an early test of their ability to turn out supporters, a key factor in the caucuses now less than eight months away.
Biden is scheduled to return to Iowa on Tuesday, the same day as Trump is scheduled to campaign in western Iowa, setting up the direct comparison between the two that Biden has sought to emphasize.
Biden had also declined to attend the California Democratic Party convention the previous weekend, choosing instead to speak to an important gay rights group in battleground Ohio.
While Biden had awkwardly reversed positions this past week on abortion policy, a Democratic priority, few of his chief critics took aim on Sunday.
Biden's campaign first affirmed his support for the decades-old Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortions, only to reverse course. It prompted a rebuke from several fellow candidates, especially Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is rising in the polls in Iowa.
A Des Moines Register-CNN-Mediacom poll published Saturday showed Biden favored in Iowa, followed by Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, who trails in fifth, last week called herself "absolutely opposed" to maintaining the Hyde Amendment, but she avoided criticizing Biden on abortion in Sunday's speech.
Warren also stayed away from the abortion funding debate and instead framed her veiled criticism of Biden through her focus on rooting moneyed interests out of politics.
"I'm not spending my time with high-dollar donors and with corporate lobbyists," Warren said. "That's how we build a grassroots movement in America."
Biden has been holding often twice-weekly, big-dollar fundraisers with groups hosted by wealthy business executives and successful trial lawyers, as he plans to do in Chicago on Wednesday.
June is an important month for the candidates, with the important second-quarter fundraising deadline approaching, as well as the first nationally televised Democratic debates. Participation in the debates depends on a candidate's strength in the polls and campaign contributions.
In the convention-like environment, there was plenty of swag from the candidates.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's campaign outfitted its tables of supporters with light-up campaign signs, which they waved in the air to show off one of the biggest crowds in the ballroom as Booker spoke.
Harris' campaign gave its attendees glowing yellow foam sticks with the word "fearless" emblazoned on the side, and Warren's campaign had a sugar cookie stamped with the word "persist" at each table setting.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a successful brew-pub entrepreneur, gave his supporters beer koozies, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's campaign laid out her book for her supporters to take home.