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Democrats scramble after Biden’s halting debate performance

President Biden’s advisers scrambled Friday to contain growing panic among donors, down-ballot and swing state Democrats after his halting debate performance undermined his case that he has the capacity to lead the country for another four years.

Biden’s top campaign officials began with a morning meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlanta, where they told members of the campaign’s national finance committee that the president did not perform to his best ability in his faceoff with former president Donald Trump, but remains capable of winning the race, according to multiple people familiar with the remarks.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, the campaign chair, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the campaign manager, and Quentin Fulks, the principal deputy campaign manager, argued that while the event was a setback for the campaign it would not change the outlines of the race — a claim that many in the party have begun to dispute privately as they await more data.

Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, struggled to maintain their composure as they sought to make sense of their emotional reactions to the night before. “I think a lot of my friends are not at the logical point right now,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a 20-year veteran who serves as a United Methodist minister and is often called on to lead the caucus in prayer. “I mean, I think people are panic-stricken. They’re panic-stricken, and I don’t think that’s a good time to think.”

Biden attempted a do-over of sorts at a raucous midday rally in Raleigh, N.C., struggling with a cough and occasional protester interruptions. Biden kept his voice louder and clearer than the debate the night before. Reading from a teleprompter, he called Trump a “one-man crime wave.” (The crowd responded with “lock him up” chants, echoing a frequent refrain at Trump rallies.)

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious. I don’t walk as easy as used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to,” he said. “But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. And I know what millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down you get back up.”

Biden entered the first debate, which his campaign had orchestrated as a chance to prove his mettle, trailing in states where he needs to win. His advisers, starting in 2023, had bet that they could overcome concerns about his health by staging a few big moments where he could prove his capacity and command — a couple debates, the State of the Union, some major appearances on the world stage and campaign speeches.

It is a strategy that has allowed those around him to make allowances for his age — a shorter staircase on Air Force One, fewer news conferences and media appearances, a teleprompter at even small fundraising events with top donors. But the approach also raised the risk of a misstep, a risk that has grown in recent months as the shift in his demeanor in public settings have become more evident.

Walking into the debate, Biden’s advisers told allies that they were confident he was prepared. Many of those same allies and advisers found themselves shaken Friday morning by what had transpired the night before, still unsure of the meaning. Some said they were waiting for more data to come in about how voters had absorbed Biden’s performance.

The Biden campaign privately circulated data it had gathered from real-time dial groups suggesting swing voters also had strongly negative reactions to Trump’s performance on the debate stage.

“There is a lot of anger and disappointment. And there is a lot of people getting their hackles up and asking what more they can do. It is too early to know where the chips fall,” said one person involved in the campaign, who requested anonymity like others because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “The money is great, and will be today. That usually means something. I don’t know if it does today.”

Another senior Democratic strategist said everyone he has spoken to is in a “complete panic” and “trying to research the convention rules” on what would happen if Biden withdraws.

Many are concerned that the issue of age and cognitive capacity, which Biden’s performance Thursday raised again, may become a more fundamental barrier for voters than typical policy and temperament questions. “You can tack left, tack right, tack to the middle after a bad night,” he said. “When you’re just old, you can’t tack young. You can’t change the perception. You put it on display on TV in front of the whole country. You can’t fix that display. You can’t unpack that.”

The dismal debate performance heightened private worries among down-ballot Democrats who already considered Biden a drag on their races in purple and red states where the president is consistently polling behind Senate candidates.

As of Friday afternoon, the seven Democrats running in the most competitive Senate contests this fall had largely stayed silent or dodged questions on Biden’s debate performance.

When asked by a local news reporter if he should tell Biden to step aside, Sen. Sherrod Brown (R-Ohio) said he was focused on his own race. “I’m not a pundit,” he said. Republican operatives quickly filled the void, highlighting past comments from Sen. Jon Tester (R-Mt.) and Brown defending Biden’s mental fitness and competence.

Sen Peter Welch (D-Vt) called the debate performance “a serious setback” for Biden.“The pending question in the public about beating Trump is the age question,” Welch said. “Last night was his best opportunity to put that to rest. Instead he’s intensified it.”

He said if Biden performs badly in November it will create a “fierce undertow” for down-ballot candidates.

Some moderate House Democrats in tough races this fall are angry that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) dismissed reporters’ questions about whether Biden should step aside, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about Biden and Democratic leaders.

Jeffries met Friday morning with members of the Blue Dog Coalition — the most moderate block of the House Democratic caucus — and at no point asked those members to hold the line for the president.

“Members came away from it feeling like Hakeem gets their situation and is in sync with them that [swing district Democrats] cannot and will not be cheerleaders for Biden,” a person in the meeting said. “Mood from Hakeem and the members was not knives out for Biden. No discussion of a new nominee or pushing Biden to go … But Hakeem was pretty tepid in offering any defense of what happened.”

Scores of House Democrats were visibly angry Friday, with some privately suggesting exploring the idea of pushing Biden to step aside ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August. Most Democrats, including those in leadership, privately acknowledged that the caucus should put all their focus on regaining the House majority given that many are no longer as confident that Biden can win reelection.

“Hopefully we win the White House, hopefully we win the Senate, but the House is mandatory to win,” one House Democrat who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about Biden said. “We could be the thin blue line that is protecting our country from total chaos.”

Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that even on Biden’s “worst night,” he was a better choice than Trump.

“He got off to a bad start,” she said. “I thought he came through okay on the issues later. But again, integrity versus dishonesty on his worst night, his values shown through much better than the other guy.”

Former president Barack Obama also weighed in, asking supporters to stay the course in a social media post.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” Obama wrote, an apparent reference to his own debate stumble in 2012. “But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.”

The Biden campaign announced they had raised $14 million on debate day and the hour after the debate was its best fundraising moment since the campaign launched. And Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a close ally of the president, said he had been suffering from a cold and his performance was not reflective of reality.

“It was not his best time, but it was one event,” said Rep Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). “I don’t think the party will put [up] another person.” He added Biden had “weathered the storm” in the primary elections.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), another top Biden ally, conceded the debate performance was poor, but said he expected to speak to Biden on Friday and tell him to “stay the course.”

He also brushed aside the idea of replacing the president. “There’s no better Democrat,” he said, and directed some advice to nervous Democrats: “Chill out.”

“I’m not about to defend the debate performance,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the congressional Progressive Caucus. But she stressed that Biden had been elected in the primary by the voters and would be the Democrats’ candidate.

“It’s fancy-dance thinking to start talking about other people,” she said. “He is our candidate. He is our president.”

Other Democrats urged the president to get on the road immediately to reassure voters after his shaky performance.

Rebecca Katz, who advised Sen. John Fetterman during his 2022 Senate bid, said a bad debate performance is survivable and that Fetterman’s strategy after his debate offers a “playbook” to Biden.

“He has four months, we had two weeks, and what we did is we sent John into every single media market,” Katz said. “And we were just like have a conversation in front of reporters: go.”

Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) said the party would remain united, with a strong bench of Democratic leaders who would continue to support the broader project. “I hope the president gets some rest. I hope he feels better,” Kuster said. “We’ve got a big fight ahead.”

Additional reporting by Amy Gardner, Paul Kane and Dylan Wells.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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