Poor debate performance? Yes, but Democratic allies standing behind Biden

An Arizona man watches the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump at a watch party Thursday in Scottsdale. (Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden strained to quell Democratic anxieties over his unsteady showing in his debate with former President Donald Trump, as elected members of his party closed ranks around him in an effort to shut down talks of replacing him atop the ticket.

Biden’s halting delivery and meandering comments, particularly early in the debate, fueled concerns from even members of his own party that at age 81 he’s not up for the task of leading the country for another four years.


Even before the debate, Biden’s age had been a liability with voters, and Thursday night’s faceoff appeared to reinforce the public’s deep-seated concerns before perhaps the largest audience he will garner before ballots are cast.

Democratic lawmakers on Friday acknowledged Biden’s poor showing, but tried to stop talk of replacing him as their standard-bearer, and instead tried to shift the focus onto Trump’s attacks and falsehoods that they hoped would remind voters of the daily turbulence of his presidency.

“Well, the president didn’t have a good night, but neither did Donald Trump with lie after lie and his dark vision for America,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told The Associated Press on Friday, hours before he was set to share a stage with the president in Raleigh. “We cannot send Donald Trump back to the White House. He’s an existential threat to our nation.”

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries answered with a flat “no” when asked Friday if Biden should step aside. But the New York lawmaker added that he’s eager to see how Biden would address his performance at his Friday rally.

“I’m looking forward to hearing from President Biden,” he said. “And until he articulates a way forward in terms of his vision for America at this moment, I’m going to reserve comment about anything relative to where we are at this moment other than to say I stand behind the ticket.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres, Democrat of New York, said, “Since performance last night, I had to take a few more antidepressants than usual.”

“People have asked me, ‘Do I feel comfortable with the debate?’ You know, a Donald Trump presidency would cause me far greater discomfort than a Joe Biden debate performance.”

Biden was greeted early Friday in Raleigh by throngs of supporters invited by his campaign to watch Air Force One carry him from the debate in Atlanta, where he brushed aside Democratic concerns with his showing that he should consider stepping aside, saying, “No, it’s hard to debate a liar.”

The Democrat was scheduled to hold what his campaign is billing as the largest-yet rally of his reelection bid in the state Trump carried by the narrowest margin in 2020. He’ll then travel to New York for a weekend of big-dollar fundraisers that his campaign now needs more than ever, as it looks to stave off Trump.

Biden’s campaign announced that it raised $14 million on debate day and the morning after, while Trump’s campaign said it raised more than $8 million from the start of the debate through the end of the night.

Vice President Kamala Harris, whom the Biden campaign sent out to defend his performance as was set to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada. She told CNN hours after the debate, “There was a slow start, but there was a strong finish.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said he could hardly sleep because of the number of telephone calls he got after Biden performed “horribly” in the debate.

“People were just concerned. And I told everybody being concerned is healthy, overreacting is dangerous,” Cleaver said. “And I think I wouldn’t advise anybody to make rash decisions right now.”

Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who was formerly a longtime fixture in House Democratic leadership, said he would likely speak to Biden later Friday and his message would be simple: “Stay the course.”

Biden and his allies were looking to brush aside concerns about his delivery to keep the focus on the choice for voters this November. They seized on Trump’s equivocations on whether he would accept the will of voters this time around, his refusal to condemn the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden, and his embrace of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade that had legalized abortion nationwide.

Trump’s comments, Biden’s team insisted, are out of step with the majority of voters and will serve as fodder for the barrage of ads that they will see through Election Day.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat frequently mentioned as a 2028 contender and speculated about as a potential replacement for Biden on the ticket should he step aside, released a statement backing him on Friday.

“The difference between Joe Biden’s vision for making sure everyone in America has a fair shot and Donald Trump’s dangerous, self-serving plans will only get sharper as we head toward November,” she said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also dismissed questions on whether he would consider stepping in for Biden, telling reporters after the debate, “I will never turn my back on him.”

Under current Democratic Party rules, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace Biden as the party’s nominee without his cooperation or without party officials being willing to rewrite the rules at the August national convention.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison tried Friday to tamp down concerns.

“He beat him once. He’ll beat him again,” Harrison said in Atlanta when asked whether the president was his party’s best nominee against Trump. “One of the things that notoriously Democrats are known for, some of us like to wring our hands,” Harrison said. “It’s not time to wring hands. It’s about rolling your sleeves to do the work.”

Trump, meanwhile, flew to his golf club in Virginia, a onetime battleground that has shifted toward Democrats in recent years but that his aides believe can flip toward the Republican in November. He was set to hold at rally in Chesapeake Friday afternoon.