Cracks showing in Democratic support as Biden says he ‘nearly fell asleep on stage’

More cracks in confidence in Joe Biden’s re-election chances were opening on Wednesday as he prepared to meet with Democratic governors in the evening, amid increasingly poor polls, growing calls to withdraw – and Barack Obama reportedly privately sharing that his former vice-president’s path to re-election is even tougher post-debate.

Biden will be talking with state governors and Capitol Hill leaders all week, officials indicated on Tuesday, in attempts to reassure them of his competence and address escalating discontent among party leaders after last week’s calamitous debate performance against Donald Trump.

But Democratic anger and frustration continue to rise, in public and, especially, behind the scenes as senior figures scramble to make sense of the crisis at the White House and plot the way forward.

At a Virginia campaign event on Tuesday evening, the US president blamed his weak debate on his international trips leading up to the event, saying: “I wasn’t very smart. I decided to travel around the world a couple times, going through around 100 time zones … before … the debate. Didn’t listen to my staff and came back and nearly fell asleep on stage. That’s no excuse but it is an explanation.”

This despite a week in between to rest and prepare back in the US before last Thursday night’s debate.

Related: James Carville calls on Democratic party to ‘deliver change’ and replace Biden

Former president Obama has shared in private with Democratic allies who sought his counsel that Biden, who was his vice-president during his two terms in the White House, was already on a tough road to re-election and that road was now more rocky after the debate, the Washington Post reported late on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources who told the newspaper they were familiar with the former president’s remarks.

Obama talked with Biden by phone after the debate and the Biden re-election campaign spoke of Obama’s “unwavering support”, while the former president’s team declined to comment, the outlet further reported.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that one in three Democrats said Biden should end his re-election campaign after the debate in Atlanta where he gave a low-energy, garbled performance.

And even former first lady Michelle Obama, who has never held elected office, led Trump 50% to 39% in a hypothetical match-up put to those responding to pollsters, Reuters reported.

As of Tuesday evening, a House Democratic aide said, there are 25 Democratic members of the House of Representatives preparing to call for Biden to step aside. Biden’s campaign, however, has continued to downplay concerns, noting that the president had raised $38m since last week.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Lloyd Doggett, a congressman from Texas, became the first Democrat in the House of Representatives to publicly urge the president to step aside.

Doggett brought his own misgivings into the open, saying he had hoped the debate “would give some momentum” to the president’s stagnant poll ratings in key battleground states.

“It did not,” he said. “Instead of reassuring voters, the president failed to effectively defend his many accomplishments and expose Trump’s many lies.”

Several prominent Democrats who previously served in the House or Senate have already spoken out, calling on Biden to step aside.

And some ostensibly supportive figures, including the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn, a representative from South Carolina, have issued statements that hinted at ambivalence.

“I think it’s a legitimate question to say, is this an episode or is this a condition? When people ask that question, it’s completely legitimate – of both candidates,” Pelosi told MSNBC, adding that she had heard “mixed” views on whether Biden was fit for the presidential campaign.

Kamala Harris, the vice-president, is the top alternative to replace Biden if he decides not to continue his re-election campaign, according to seven senior sources at the Biden campaign, the White House and the Democratic National Committee with knowledge of current discussions on the topic, according to Reuters.

Some influential Democrats have floated alternatives to Biden besides Harris, including popular cabinet members and Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom from California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. But trying to sidestep Harris is wishful thinking and would be nearly impossible, these sources, who did not wish to be named, said.

If named as the party nominee, Harris, 59, would take over money raised by the Biden campaign and inherit campaign infrastructure, the sources said. She also has the highest name recognition among all the alternatives, and the highest polling among Democrats who could seriously be considered a candidate, the sources said.

In the Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Tuesday, Harris trailed Trump by one percentage point, at 42% to 43%, a difference that was well within the poll’s 3.5 percentage point margin of error, a showing statistically just as strong as Biden’s.

Sam Levin, Joanna Walters and Reuters contributed reporting

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