Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Top Democrats have called on Joe Biden to halt his bid for re-election after his stumbling performance in the presidential debate with Donald Trump reignited concerns about the 81-year-old president’s age and fitness for office.

Speaking with a raspy voice on Thursday night, Biden repeatedly tripped over his words and gave rambling answers or appeared to lose his train of thought, while Trump accused him of being the worst president in US history.

The debate was a high-stakes opportunity for Biden to allay widespread concerns about his age before a television audience of tens of millions of American voters. But one Democratic lawmaker said Biden’s performance had sparked extensive panic on Capitol Hill.

“Many House Democrats tonight, representing a wide cross-section of the Democratic caucus, were privately texting one another that Biden needs to announce he’s decided not to run for re-election. We need a new nominee,” the lawmaker said.

“Biden needs to do the patriotic thing and step aside. We need an open convention, which would excite the American people unlike anything we have ever seen.”

One Democratic party insider said after the debate that there was a “higher level of panic than I’ve seen or thought possible”.

“He confirmed our worst fears,” said another.

David Axelrod, a one-time senior adviser to former president Barack Obama, said on CNN that Biden had scored points on some policy matters, but added: “There are going to be discussions about whether he should continue.”

Obama’s ex-campaign manager David Plouffe described it as a “DEFCON 1 moment”, referring to the label for the highest alert level for US armed forces.

“It really pains me to say this,” he told MSNBC. “[Biden and Trump] are three years apart. They seemed about 30 years apart tonight. That is going to be the thing that voters really wrestle with.”

But Biden seemed undeterred, telling reporters at a late-night stop at a Waffle House restaurant in Atlanta: “I think we did well.”

Asked about calls for him to step aside, and whether he had any concerns about his debate performance, Biden — who said he had a “sore throat” — replied: “No. It’s hard to debate a liar.”

The Biden team had pushed for an unprecedented early presidential debate in June, more than four months before November’s election, in an attempt to reinvigorate the president’s flailing campaign and remind voters why they chose him over Trump in 2020.

But the calculation backfired, as Biden did little to reassure the overwhelming majority of voters who polls indicate are concerned he is too old for another four years in the White House.

In one rambling answer early in the debate, Biden appeared to lose track of what he was saying: “Making sure that we continue to . . . strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we are able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I have been able to do with the Covid, excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do . . . look, if we finally beat Medicare.”

Joe Biden exits the stage
Joe Biden‘s team pushed for an early presidential debate in June in an attempt to reinvigorate the president’s flailing campaign © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Biden campaign later announced that Thursday had been its single biggest day for grassroots, or small-dollar, donations since the president launched his re-election bid.

But big-dollar Democratic donors were raising alarm bells after the debate.

“When I last saw him he wasn’t great but definitely more coherent than in tonight’s debate,” one dealmaker said. “I’m not sure there is an alternative at the moment but if there ever was a chance to change things up it’s now.”

Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Democratic strategist and adviser to prominent donor Reid Hoffman, wrote that Biden “had a horrible night, cementing concerns about his age, his greatest electoral weakness”, according to a letter seen by the FT.

In one of the debate’s exchanges on abortion rights, which has proven to be a winning electoral issue for Democrats in the past two years, Biden pivoted instead to illegal immigration, an electoral weakness for his party.

Kyle Kondik, a non-partisan analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said: “If people were concerned about Biden’s age, I don’t think he did anything to ameliorate those concerns.”

“I would imagine there is going to be a lot of bedwetting [among Democrats] after this debate,” Kondik added.

Donald Trump speaks during the debate
Donald Trump repeated many of the false claims that have become a hallmark of his bid for another four years in the White House © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Still, many high-profile Democrats publicly defended the president after Thursday’s debate. Gavin Newsom, the California governor widely seen as a future presidential candidate, told MSNBC the questions about whether Biden should stay on as the nominee were “unhelpful” and “unnecessary”.

“We have got to have the back of this president. You don’t turn your back because of one performance. What kind of party does that?”

Trump, 78, is not much younger than Biden, but appeared comfortable on Thursday night as he tore into the president, and in many cases repeated the false, outlandish claims that have become a hallmark of his own bid for another four years in the White House.

“He’s not equipped to be president. You know it and I know it,” Trump said at one point, in reference to Biden.

The current president’s answers became steadier as the 90-minute debate wore on. Asked by CNN moderator Dana Bash whether he was too old to be president, Biden replied: “This guy is three years younger and a lot less competent . . . just look at the record. Look at what I’ve done. Look at how I’ve turned around the horrible situation he left me.”

In some testy exchanges, Biden tried to portray Trump as unfit for office, referring to his criminal convictions and myriad legal troubles. “The only person on this stage that’s a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now,” he said.

Trump continues to lead Biden in most national and swing state polls, despite being found guilty of 34 criminal charges by a New York jury last month. The former president is facing three additional criminal trials, including two cases relating to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Trump repeatedly dodged moderators’ questions on Thursday night about whether he would accept the results of this year’s election. Asked a third time, the former president replied: “If it’s a fair and legal and good election, absolutely.”

Additional reporting: Alex Rogers

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