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Joe Biden’s team said on Friday the US president would press on with his re-election bid despite mounting calls by Democrats for him to bow out after a disastrous debate performance against Donald Trump.

A campaign staffer said Biden was still committed to a second debate on September 10 with Trump, hours after the 81-year-old president’s stumbling performance on Thursday reignited concerns about his age and fitness for office.

But one veteran Democratic operative said panic had spread through the party as supporters concluded that the president would struggle to beat Trump at the ballot box in November.

“The only way it could have been more disastrous was if he had fallen off the stage. Big donors are saying . . . he has to go,” the operative said. “If Biden stays in, we will have to watch him on a trapeze wire until November.”

Top Democratic lawmakers, donors and party insiders were rattled on Thursday night after the president frequently stumbled over his words in the debate, gave rambling answers and in some instances appeared to lose his train of thought.

The debate had been seen as a crucial opportunity for Biden to turn around his faltering re-election campaign, which has been weighed down by concerns about his age and the cost of living. He trails Trump in most national and swing state opinion polls.

Before Thursday’s debate, predictive polling models saw a close race, with FiveThirtyEight calling the race a coin flip. But political betting markets moved dramatically against Biden during and after the debate — and a Real Clear Politics average of betting odds on Friday showed Biden with just a 19 per cent chance of winning the presidency.

The Democratic operative said the easiest path forward for the party would be if Biden’s wife, Jill, or other longtime political advisers in his inner circle convinced him to drop out.

Other Democrats are quietly calling for former President Barack Obama or former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, the former Democratic presidential nominee, to be persuade Biden to step aside.

“There’s lots of gallows humour among Democratic members this morning. The talk about whether Biden continues is fully out in the open,” a Democratic congressman told the Financial Times on Friday morning.

“We need a new nominee,” said another Democratic lawmaker.

A top New York financier said that a small number of influential donors had reached out to Ron Klain and Mike Donilon, two of Biden’s closest longtime advisers, urging the president to do “the right thing for the party and country”. 

“Ultimately it will be Jill [Biden] who makes the decision,” said another top financier. “She’s the voice of reason and I can’t imagine she will want to go through four months of this . . . Joe will listen to her.”

The Biden team sought to project confidence on Friday, saying the president had raised $14mn on Thursday and Friday morning. It said that the hour after the debate was the single best of grassroots, or small-dollar, fundraising since Biden launched his re-election bid.

A campaign spokesperson said Biden was now “riding the momentum” of his “decisive win” in Thursday’s debate as he headed to a rally in North Carolina.

Biden himself brushed aside questions about his candidacy late on Thursday at an impromptu stop at a Waffle House restaurant in Atlanta, saying: “I think we did well.”

Asked about calls for him to drop out of the race and whether he had any concerns about his debate performance, he replied: “No. It’s hard to debate a liar.”

After his rally in North Carolina on Friday, the president is set to attend several closed-door meetings with deep-pocketed donors, including a campaign event on Friday night in Manhattan and two on Saturday in the Hamptons and New Jersey.

Trump is set to hold his own rally on Friday afternoon in Virginia, a state he lost to Biden by 10 points in 2020 but where the latest opinion polls show the two men in a statistical tie.

Additional reporting by Oliver Roeder in New York

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