At the final party-sponsored candidate forum here on Saturday, the leading candidates all sought to associate themselves with the “resistance” against Mr. Trump. In an acknowledgment of how much Democrats are enjoying their Trump-inspired unity — and how much they do not want a replay of the Clinton-Sanders race — Mr. Perez and Mr. Ellison held to a de facto nonaggression pact toward each another.
“I had no better friend,” Mr. Ellison said of Mr. Perez, referring to the former secretary’s time in the Obama cabinet.
Strikingly, only one candidate among the 10 onstage truly confronted the two front-runners: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
“Why not go with somebody who isn’t a product of one faction or another faction, but somebody who is here to deliver the fresh start our party needs,” said Mr. Buttigieg, adding of the party’s contentious presidential primary, “I don’t know why we’d want to live through it a second time.”
He does not have anywhere near the number of public commitments that Mr. Ellison and Mr. Perez currently enjoy, but Mr. Buttigieg is trying to fashion himself as a compromise candidate if neither of the front-runners secure a majority on the first ballot when the party gathers this month in Atlanta.
Anticipating such an effort, two of the other trailing contenders used the forum to target Mr. Buttigieg. The New Hampshire Democratic chairman, Raymond Buckley, boasting of his own neutrality during the presidential primary, turned to Mr. Buttigieg at one point and reminded him of his endorsement of Mrs. Clinton. “Sorry, mayor who supported Hillary,” Mr. Buckley quipped. And Jehmu Greene, a Democratic organizer and a former Fox News contributor, chided the 35-year-old Mr. Buttigieg for his frequent remark that a millennial is best suited to represent millennials.
Before and after the gathering, rumors of deals being struck between competing camps swirled in the corridors of this city’s convention center, where the contenders set up booths and one candidate seeking to become the party finance chairman even sprang for a platter of crab cakes.
While the hopefuls for party chairman have slightly divergent diagnoses of what went wrong last year and ideas for the best way forward, the discussion so far has largely centered on party tactics and strategy. Mrs. Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, Mr. Trump’s unpopularity and the increasingly liberal bent of the party’s grass-roots have tempered any calls for moderation.
“This is not going to be a philosophical battle,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat. Mr. Hoyer was at Saturday’s forum to support Mr. Perez, but called both his candidate and Mr. Ellison “strong progressives.”
With support from a number of governors, leading donors and Obama loyalists, Mr. Perez is clearly the preferred candidate among the Democratic establishment. That status, despite his liberal credentials, has made him a figure of suspicion among elements of the Sanders-inspired left.
“It says a lot about how much Sanders has skewed how Democrats think when the Latino labor activist from Takoma Park is considered the centrist,” said Kenneth Baer, an author and a former Obama administration official, alluding to the progressive Maryland enclave where Mr. Perez lives.
At the outset of the forum here, Mr. Perez proclaimed, “I miss Barack Obama a lot, my friends.” Yet he conceded during a television interview that the former president had not paid sufficient attention to party-building.
He also raised eyebrows last week by telling Kansas Democrats that he agreed with the complaint from Mr. Sanders’s supporters that the primary process had been “rigged.” Soon after, Mr. Perez wrote on Twitter that he “misspoke” and that Mrs. Clinton “became our nominee fair and square.”
The machinations have seemed rather small, though, in light of the boiling fury toward Mr. Trump.
Ben Jealous, the former N.A.A.C.P. president and a supporter of Mr. Ellison, noted that the Sanders-affiliated progressive group that he helps lead had drawn 500 participants to a rally on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and another 400 to Western Maryland, both conservative parts of the state.
“Donald Trump will ensure we stay woke,” Mr. Jealous said.
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