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At South by Southwest, presidential hopefuls woo hipsters and techies

Howard Schultz, right, speaks with Dylan Byers during the South by Southwest conference. (Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg News)

AUSTIN — To polite applause, Howard Schultz pushed his case for independent centrism. Nearby, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made an impassioned case for breaking up the country’s biggest technology companies. A few blocks away, former congressman Beto O’Rourke was mobbed after sitting through the premiere of a documentary about his unsuccessful 2018 Senate campaign.

In short: The 2020 circus had arrived at the hipster-techie festival that is South by Southwest.

SXSW has long been a destination for music, technology and film. But in recent years, it has grown increasingly political. The left-leaning millennial crowd here — riding in on a fleet of electric scooters — is highly sought by candidates in the Democratic primary trying to create viral moments and seeking the sheen of authenticity.

“I am pleased to be the P.T. Barnum,” said Evan Smith, chief executive of the Texas Tribune, which was hosting most of the political events.

For the first time in this presidential campaign, most of the Democratic candidates were gathered in the same place. Over barbecue, craft beer and tacos, they took turns selling their vision for the party, and the United States.

Over the course of the weekend, many sat for an hour-long interview. Most dodged questions about whether President Trump should be impeached, said they are eager to see special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, and heaped praise on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who sometimes seemed to overshadow them all.

Warren drew one of the largest and most enthusiastic crowds, and defended a proposal she outlined Friday to break up companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

“The monopolist will make fewer monopoly profits — boohoo,” she said.

She paused when asked whether Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had tried to discourage her from running, saying, “Bernie and I had a private dinner. My view is that dinner stays private.”

She made clear that, unlike Sanders, she is not a democratic socialist.

“Bernie has to speak to what democratic socialism is,” she said. “All I can tell you is what I believe. And that is there is an enormous amount to be gained from markets. That markets create opportunities.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) touted her bipartisan credentials, highlighting the Republicans she has worked with and referencing the late senator John McCain at least three times. She promoted her ability to win in conservative areas and outlined how she would run against Trump.

“I will use humor,” she said, providing as an example her response to his tweet making fun of her snowy announcement speech. “You know what I’d like to see? How your hair will work in a blizzard, Mr. Umbrella Man.”

The first question she faced was about her alleged tough treatment of staff. She directly addressed an anecdote in a New York Times profile about her, which claimed she had once gotten upset at a staffer for not getting her a fork for a salad while on an airplane. Instead, she ate the meal with a comb.

“The comb story was me sort of doing a mom thing,” said Klobuchar, a mother of one. “I didn’t have a fork. I used a comb to eat a salad very briefly on a plane in a ‘MacGyver’ move.”

“I know I can be tough on people,” she added. “Sometimes too tough, that I can push them too hard, that I can always do better.”

Asked if such criticism was sexist, she said, “I’m not going to go there . . . I just can’t waste my time analyzing it.”

In addition to several prominent Democrats, the festival attracted Bill Weld and John Kasich, who are both mulling a run against Trump in the Republican primary.

Kasich, a former Republican governor of Ohio who ran for president in 2016, outlined his support for combating income inequality, passing comprehensive immigration reform and fighting climate change. He ridiculed the president’s “boneheaded decisions” and reveled in the number of women in office.

He also noted that he was sidelined during the 2016 Republican debates — “I was so far off in the wings that I felt like a Ugandan swimmer at the Olympics.” He said he still feels that way in today’s Republican Party.

“The party, it’s just — it’s gone backwards,” he said.

He seemed fed up with politics — “a pox on all their homes” — even as he left open the possibility of another presidential run.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m not into Hail Mary. I run when I think I can win. We assess things. About every week or every day. I’m not closing anything down. I just don’t know yet. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

Schultz, who has been weighing whether to run as an independent, was the first speaker of the day.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the two-party system for all too long now is broken,” he told a full ballroom. “The level of polarization and revenge politics has reached a level where we are on the clock as a country.”

Schultz criticized many Democratic proposals as unrealistic, saying the candidates are living in an “Alice in Wonderland” fairy tale. He said taxes need to be raised, but he wouldn’t say by how much. He would leave that to “people a lot smarter than me.”

He used a question about whether he supports abortion rights to say that he does, before turning, unprompted, to religion.

“The country is ready for a Jewish president. I’m not running as someone who is Jewish, I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.”

He railed against socialism, even though at one point he struggled to define it.

“For us to start moving toward a level of socialism is such an extreme position and so inconsistent with the values and heritage of this country,” he said. “And that is what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are proposing — to try to defeat Donald Trump with an extreme proposal.”

If either one is the nominee, he said, Trump will be reelected.

With Democrats represented by a donkey and Republicans by an elephant, he was asked what animal he wanted to represent him. He shrugged, saying he was open to suggestions.

“Unicorn!” shouted someone in the audience.

Interviews with nearly a dozen conference attendees as they vaped, disembarked from scooters and ordered cappuccinos suggest the race is, for now, wide open. Few people named a favorite.

“This conference is so socially aware of itself, and trying to make things more impactful,” said Will Johnson, a 34-year-old commercial director from Los Angeles. “I have a hard time trusting the political agenda. It doesn’t speak to where we are right now. If feels like it speaks to something that once was. It’s a show. I get sick of the show without any results.”

He’s intrigued by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and O’Rourke, largely because he’s ready for generational change.

“I felt the Bern,” he said. “But now it’s like ahhhh — I don’t know, man.”