Biden and his allies rush to reassure anxious Democrats who want him off the ticket

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s aides and allies circulated talking points to Democrats, fielded phone calls from nervous donors and shoehorned new lines into the president’s speech Friday afternoon as part of an all-out effort to contain the damage from his weak debate performance the night before.

Biden’s hoarse voice and subdued delivery rattled Democratic leaders who had been hoping that an energetic performance would quell persistent concerns that he isn’t up to the rigors of the presidency.

One ally, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, told NBC News that Biden “had a bad night. It’s hard to say otherwise.”

Murphy is hosting a fundraising event for Biden on Saturday and conceded he’s received some nervous calls from donors. Still, he said no one has backed out of the event, and Biden has proven that he “knows how to get back up and dust himself off.”

The 90-minute debate debacle in Atlanta crystallized a sense of foreboding that had been building among Democrats for months. Quietly, some strategists are now mulling possible replacements at the top of the ticket should Biden bow out.

“The party needs to consider its options in terms of how we address our new circumstances post-debate. But we don’t have much time,” Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democratic leader, told NBC News in an interview.

Biden’s performance created uncertainty inside his own team as it dealt with the fallout, which continued into Friday evening when The New York Times’ editorial board called on him to leave the race. After the debate, Biden campaign aides discussed whether Vice President Kamala Harris should do television interviews. Some believed it would be a bad look for her to appear on TV, worrying that she might outshine Biden, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

Harris wanted to do the interviews, though, and she used the forum to prosecute the case against Donald Trump and describe how Biden has delivered for the country over the past three and a half years.

Looking to mollify anxious Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Biden campaign sent out talking points citing internal research that shows Trump’s performance at the debate alienated many viewers.

The campaign noted that the president was suffering from a sore throat, according to a House Democratic aide who had seen the material. Despite a rough start from Biden, 3 out of 4 voters who watched the debate reported deep concerns about Trump’s temperament, according to the campaign. And the vast majority also believed that Biden did a better job addressing issues that they care about, the talking points showed.

Recognizing that he faltered, Biden worked with aides to rewrite a portion of his campaign speech in North Carolina on Friday. He wanted to directly address the issue and drafted a new closing that acknowledged his lapses onstage.

“I know I’m not a young man,” he told his supporters in Raleigh. “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to, but I know what I do know — I know how to tell the truth!”

Not since Richard Nixon’s fateful clash with John F. Kennedy in 1960 has a debate carried as much potential to shake up a presidential race. Just as Nixon appeared drawn and tired, wounding his candidacy, Biden displayed little of the lucidity and stage presence that voters expect of a commander in chief.

Many Democratic officeholders are sticking with him nonetheless, out of loyalty or fear of the chaos that his quick retirement would unleash. Biden’s campaign hopes that the moment will fizzle in the coming weeks and voters will turn their attention to Trump’s scandals and deficiencies as a leader.

Biden gave no sign that he’s ready to withdraw. He spoke with brio at the North Carolina rally and his aides insisted he was in the race to stay.

“There are no conversations about that whatsoever,” Michael Tyler, a campaign spokesman, told reporters Friday aboard Air Force One, when asked if Biden might step aside. “The Democratic voters elected — nominated Joe Biden. Joe Biden is the nominee.”

Biden plans to take part in another debate with Trump on Sept. 10, three senior Biden officials said, adding they are “all systems go” for a rematch.

But some party officials have seen enough; they don’t believe Biden can recover in time.

“Look at what happened when [Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg refused to resign,” said a Democratic state party chair who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “Now what do we have? She thought she was doing the right thing but then she died, and now [conservatives] have a supermajority because she wouldn’t let go.”

Campaign aides concede that Biden squandered an opportunity to improve his standing. They had reckoned that in a side-by-side comparison before a massive television audience, Trump would look grossly unfit to serve.

And they hoped the debate would boost Biden’s stagnant approval ratings. Instead, Biden’s performance became the story, overshadowing Trump’s repeated misstatements about his and Biden’s records.

One set of Biden loyalists blamed another amid the fallout. Some Biden allies questioned the preparation he’d gotten during a full week holed up at Camp David with aides who’d led him through rehearsals.

Biden emerged from his retreat in the Maryland hills looking wan and tired, his voice raspy from what aides later said was a cold. At the lectern, he bungled facts at times, overstating peoples’ savings on insulin and erroneously claiming Trump wanted to do away with Social Security, a popular pension program for older Americans.

“Whoever prepared the president for the debate should be fired,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman and a Biden fundraiser. “Anita Dunn, Jen O’Malley [Dillon] and some of these other folks that helped him prepare did a terrible job,” he said, mentioning a senior Biden White House adviser and a top campaign official, respectively. “Whoever got him in the mindset for the debate needs to go.”

However disappointing, Biden’s performance didn’t necessarily hurt his chances or change the arc of the race, Biden campaign advisers insisted.

Geoff Garin, a Biden pollster who conducted a survey on the debate, told NBC News: “We should be honest about the fact that it was a missed opportunity for President Biden, but the reality is that voters’ preferences in the election were not changed in any significant way by the debate.”

There was even a bit of good news emerging from the debacle. A senior Biden campaign official said the operation raised $14 million on debate day and the morning after “in a sign of strength of our grassroots support.”

The post-debate hour proved to be “the single best hour of fundraising” since the campaign’s launch more than a year ago, the official said.

Democrats have gotten such reassurances before. Yet month after month, Biden’s approval rating doesn’t budge. Some officials and donors have grown impatient, making the debate a potential tipping point.

“What happened [during the debate] is that the reality became clear to us all,” a person close to the White House said. “We’ve been living with the hope that he [Biden] would have the stamina and the physical capacity to provide the energetic personification of presidential leadership that is so critical. But we’ve been misled about his capacity in that regard, and that became vividly evident.”

Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia-based Biden fundraiser, said: “Let’s take a deep breath and see how things develop in a week or 10 days. In the meantime, if people want to have discussions about everything from potentially having somebody else [on the ticket] to how to handle last night, maybe that should happen. But before people jump off bridges or start a draft movement, let’s take a deep breath and see how things unfold.”

Whether Biden remains on the ticket is, in the end, largely up to Biden. He was the runaway winner of the Democratic presidential primaries, which amounted to a coronation. The Biden campaign has substantial sway over its delegates, making it doubtful that they’d dump him over his protests.

As a practical matter, Biden would need to voluntarily step aside. That might take some convincing from party mandarins — chiefly, former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., whose endorsement of Biden in the 2020 primaries vaulted him to the nomination.

“The Democrats have a whole group of outstanding people who can pick up the baton and carry it forward,” said a Biden fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss party strategy. “This is really a decision that the president, the first family and his senior advisers have to seriously look at. The fact is that politics is performative and his approval rating is mired in the 30s and the country cannot afford to have Donald Trump back.”

“This is about more than Joe Biden,” the fundraiser added. “This is about the future of the country.”

So far, those possessing the gravitas to convince Biden to step aside have largely stayed loyal. Obama put out a message on X that said: “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.”

Asked by NBC News if Biden is the best messenger at the top of the ticket, Pelosi didn’t directly answer.

“I’ve been a very big supporter of President Biden,” she said on Friday. “He’s a great president. He’s done great things for our country.”

“We should stay the course,” Clyburn added.

If Democratic elites staged an intervention and persuaded Biden to drop out, the party could confront a new set of troubles.

Inside the party, a rift is emerging between those who believe Vice President Kamala Harris should be the heir apparent and others who prefer one of the nation’s prominent governors, like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Gavin Newsom of California or J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.

Choosing a governor would cut both ways. It might signal a sharp break from a president who is largely unpopular, but it would risk alienating African American voters who are a loyal Democratic constituency and prefer Harris.

“There’s enough frustration and concern about her [Harris] — she has no real support — that I don’t see her path for securing the nomination,” said a Democratic source, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about the vice president.

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