Democrats scramble after Biden's wobbly debate against Trump

Biden's verbal stumbles and occasionally meandering responses in the debate heightened voter concerns that the 81-year-old incumbent might be not be fit to serve another four-year term

US President Joe Biden and former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on 27 June, 2024.AFP

President Joe Biden's allies scrambled on Friday to contain the damage from a feeble debate performance with Republican rival Donald Trump that prompted some of his fellow Democrats to wonder whether they could replace him as their candidate for the November US election.

Biden's verbal stumbles and occasionally meandering responses in the debate heightened voter concerns that the 81-year-old incumbent might be not be fit to serve another four-year term.

Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic Party leader in the US House of Representatives, avoided answering directly when asked by reporters if he still had faith in Biden at the top of the ticket.

I support the ticket. I support the Senate Democratic majority. We're going to do everything possible to take back the House in November. Thank you, everyone, he said.

Democratic Representative Jim McGovern told reporters: "I'd be lying to you if I told you I thought it was a great debate." Asked if it was time for the party to consider another nominee, he responded, "I haven't come to any conclusion yet. "

The Biden campaign said it raised $14 million on Thursday and Friday and posted its single best hour of fundraising immediately after the Thursday night debate.

Biden, already the oldest American president in history, faced only token opposition during the party's months-long nominating contest, and he has secured enough support to guarantee his spot as the Democratic nominee for the 5 November election.

Former President Trump, 78, likewise overcame his intra-party challengers early in the year, setting the stage for a long and bitter general election fight.

One Biden donor, who asked for anonymity, called his performance "disqualifying" and predicted that some Democrats would revisit calls for him to step aside. That would give the party time to pick another nominee at its national convention, which starts on 19 August.

Democratic officials played down that possibility. "It's not likely to happen, " Biden campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu said on CNN.

Other Biden aides and allies, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they did not think the blowback would threaten his chances of winning the nomination.

Nancy Pelosi, Jeffries' predecessor, told reporters she did not think Democrats needed another presidential nominee.

'Bad Debate'

California Governor Gavin Newsom - who could be a leading Democratic alternative - dismissed the notion that Biden could be replaced. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, another possible replacement, urged Democrats to stop worrying.

"Joe Biden had a bad debate, right, but Donald Trump was a bad president, " Shapiro said.

Interviews with undecided voters confirmed that it was a bad night for Biden. They described his showing as feeble, embarrassing and difficult to watch.

The Trump campaign released a video on Friday highlighting Biden's stumbles. "Last night the world saw who he is. He is unfit to serve, " spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said.

One adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the debate would help them compete in Democratic-leaning states like Virginia and Minnesota.

Ed McMullen, a Trump fundraiser, said three donors called him after the debate to say they were ready to back the campaign. "Anyone who raises money knows there's a time to go to donors, and this is one of those watershed moments, " he said.

Questions about Trump's fitness for office have arisen also over his conviction last month in New York for covering up hush money payments to a porn star, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his chaotic term in office.

But despite a litany of falsehoods and deflections from Trump during the debate, the focus afterwards was squarely on Biden.

The 90-minute debate at CNN headquarters in Atlanta took place far earlier in the campaign than any modern presidential debate, more than four months before the election.

That could mitigate the damage for Biden, as the memory of his performance fades and news events generate fresh headlines.

Trump, for instance, is scheduled to be sentenced in New York on July 11, just days before his party convenes to formally nominate him. He still faces three other criminal indictments, though none appears likely to reach trial before November.

At a Waffle House restaurant in Atlanta after the debate, Biden told reporters he did not have concerns about his performance. "It's hard to debate a liar, " he said.

Biden was headed for a Friday rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, a state that Democrats hope to win back from Republicans this November, before flying to New York for a

fundraiser and the opening of a monument dedicated to the 1969 Stonewall riot for LGBT rights.

Trump will hold a rally on Friday in Virginia, a state he has lost twice but hopes to put into play in November.