Biden wages desperate bid to save his reelection campaign after debate debacle

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  — 

President Joe Biden waged an intense weekend battle to save his reelection bid following his disastrous debate performance but has been unable to dismiss existential questions about his candidacy that are more glaring than ever.

Biden is secluded with his family at Camp David following several events at which he tried to ease panic among Democratic voters, officials and donors after the debate multiplied concerns that he’s too old to beat former President Donald Trump or to serve a second term. His weak and incoherent demeanor during Thursday night’s event on CNN created an extraordinary twist in the campaign and left him facing calls to cede the stage to a younger candidate just over four months from Election Day.

Biden’s camp spent the weekend lashing out at critics in the media calling for him to step aside and insisting that early data showed that Biden’s calamitous showing had not altered the fundamental shape of the race. Democratic Party grandees, meanwhile, crowded onto Sunday talk shows to try to turn attention away from Biden’s confused and painful debate showing and to put the spotlight back on Trump.

“Let us not make a judgment about a presidency on one debate,” former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.” “Let’s talk about what it means to people in their lives … the difference between Joe Biden and the former president is so clear.” South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a longtime Biden supporter, admitted to Bash that his friend had a “bad” debate but put the blame on Biden being overloaded with facts by staffers.

The president’s family, who would be critical in any decisions on the campaign’s future, currently believes Biden should stay in the race and keep fighting as they await polling data while braced for some erosion of his position, CNN’s MJ Lee and Jeff Zeleny reported Sunday. Still, that view could shift if there is a downward spiral, and the president were to be convinced that leaving the race would be the best decision.

The Democratic damage control strategy of arguing that one bad night does not detract from Biden’s past successes ignores the critical question with which many voters have wrestled for months: Is Biden simply too physically and cognitively diminished to serve another four years?

Republicans are doubling down on the issue. “All of America saw it. And you know who else saw it? Our adversaries saw it. Putin saw it, Xi saw it, the Ayatollah saw it,” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a potential Trump vice presidential pick said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” referring to the leaders of Russia, China and Iran.

Top Democrats publicly back Biden

There’s so far no sign that the 81-year-old president is contemplating abandoning his campaign to make way for a hurried attempt by the party to find another candidate.

“Joe Biden is not going to take himself out of this race, nor should he,” Maryland Democratic Gov. Wes Moore said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Since Biden is the presumptive nominee after dominating Democratic primaries, there’s no realistic way for the party to move on unless the president decides it’s time. Some party leaders fear a new nominating contest at this point would run the risk of setting off an internal civil war that could effectively hand Trump the presidency. Biden has meanwhile repeatedly insisted he’s fit to serve. And any rising-star Democrat who did step up would be accused of betrayal by many in the party and would risk their own future careers.

The president said at a fundraising event in New Jersey on Saturday night that he understood the concern, admitting he “didn’t have a great night” in Atlanta and walks more slowly and talks less smoothly than he used to. But he vowed to fight on.

For now, Biden’s team appears to have staved off the immediate danger to his campaign. His fundraising is still robust with more than $33 million raised in the days following the debate, according to his team. The heavy hitters willing to go on TV to defend him showed he’s not yet lost his party — even if there’s a full-grade meltdown going on behind the scenes.

But any set of bad polls showing an already-tough reelection bid was seriously damaged by the debate could trigger panic again. And no modern president or presumptive nominee has faced anything comparable to the calls from usually-friendly media commentators who are now urging Biden to announce he won’t accept the Democratic nomination in Chicago in August.

CNN reported on Saturday that Democratic donors are split over whether to stick with Biden or to seek another nominee, however complicated that might be. Any sign that the president could also take down Democratic hopes of holding the Senate and winning back the House could bolster the case of those wanting change, especially after a week in which the Supreme Court has demonstrated just how fundamentally unchecked conservative rule can reshape the nation.

The top bench is due to rule Monday on Trump’s claim that he enjoyed immunity for actions as president — in a case that points to his belief that he will have almost unlimited powers if he wins a second term. Biden has put claims that Trump would destroy democracy at the center of his reelection bid, but his debate debacle is only raising fresh questions about whether the threat is so grave that Democrats should turn to a safer bet.

One hint of a movement against Biden

While top party figures are publicly standing with Biden — to do anything else would be seen as treachery — many Democrats were deeply shaken by Thursday night’s debate. Many people in the party spent the weekend bemoaning the situation privately, several sources said, and are now viewing November’s election with dread.

Only one senior figure, however, has as much as hinted at movement against Biden behind the scenes. Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin told MSNBC the party was having “a very serious conversation about what to do.” Raskin added: “Regardless of what President Biden decides, our party is going to be unified, and our party also needs him at the very center of our deliberations in our campaign.”

Raskin continued, “Whether (Biden) is a candidate or someone else is the candidate, he is going to be the keynote speaker at our convention.”

Biden’s campaign sent out a stream of memos, fundraising appeals and statements over the weekend, insisting he would not quit. “Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee, period. End of story,” the campaign wrote to supporters in one email. “Voters voted. He won overwhelmingly. And if he were to drop out, it would lead to weeks of chaos, internal food fighting, and a bunch of candidates who limp into a brutal floor fight at the convention, all while Donald Trump has time to speak to American voters uncontested.”

Yet Biden’s performance was so poor on Thursday night that he allowed Trump plenty of time to speak to voters uncontested, as the ex-president got away with a torrent of lies. Often, Biden missed chances to hammer Trump on key Democratic issues such as abortion, and turned the focus back to his own vulnerabilities, such as immigration.

The ferocious counterattack by Biden’s campaign, however, is not answering fundamental questions posed in the aftermath of a debate that shattered confidence in Biden’s capacity to beat Trump for many of his fellow Democrats.

The president was under extreme pressure heading into the showdown because polls have long shown majorities of voters believe he is too old to serve a second term that would end when he is 86. Biden has noticeably become more fragile in recent years and appears a much-changed figure even from when he took office in 2021.

But instead of putting such fears to rest, he exacerbated them at a pivotal moment in the campaign with over 50 million viewers watching. And while Biden bounced back with a strong performance at a scripted campaign event in North Carolina on Friday, it will be impossible to erase the painful picture of a president falling prey to the ravages of time in his televised clash with Trump. Voters saw Biden’s reduced and poignant state with their own eyes.

New poll shows growing concern over Biden’s age

Biden’s campaign has long denied that the president’s age is disqualifying, even though it’s one of the first issues voters raise outside of the Washington political bubble. Efforts to shield Biden from public scrutiny now risk coming across as an attempt to hide his true condition from the public. The debate has shattered the credibility of frequent attempts by those around Biden to argue that while he’s often shaky in public, behind closed doors he is a dynamic force who runs intellectual rings around young aides.

Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon even blamed any poor forthcoming polls on the media and not the president. “If we do see changes in polling in the coming weeks, it will not be the first time that overblown media narratives have driven temporary dips in the polls,” she wrote, referring to former President Barack Obama’s numbers after he lost his first debate to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney in 2012. The comparison is inexact, however. Obama did perform very poorly and pitched his campaign into crisis. But there was never any question that he was not physically or mentally fit to serve another four years as president.

A new CBS/YouGov poll conducted after the debate found that 72 percent of registered voters now believe that Biden does not have the mental and cognitive health to serve as president. That’s seven points higher than weeks before the debate. Only 28 percent of voters said Biden should be running for president. Some 46 percent of Democratic registered voters thought he should not be.

On the one hand, these are devastating figures for a president who has seen erosion in key aspects of his coalition — among young, progressive and minority voters especially and has an increasingly narrow path through battleground states. But if there’s one silver lining for Biden, it’s that voters have long thought he’s too old to run and he’s been closely matched with Trump in national polls, raising the possibility that the twice impeached convicted felon alienates so many voters that the president may still be seen as a better choice by many.

Biden’s deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty raised this point in a pep talk email to Biden supporters, noting that “people were reminded of what they hate about Donald Trump: that he’s unhinged, out for revenge, and in it for himself.”

Flaherty also took remarkable swipes at the “bed wetting brigade” of Democrats calling on Biden to drop out and suggested voters didn’t care about cable news analysis or “self-important Podcasters,” an apparent reference to former Obama aides on the “Pod Save America” podcast who were withering in their criticism.

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