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Biden’s performance: halting, meandering — and unnerving for Democrats

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President Biden from the start of Thursday’s debate spoke with a voice that was thin and raspy — at times, even when delivering lines meant to be forceful, speaking barely above a whisper — and about 10 minutes into the debate he appeared to lose his focus, unable to complete a train of thought.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump interjected at one point. “I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

The two presidents, one current in a blue tie and one former in a red one, stood at podiums placed just eight feet from each other. Their disdain for one another was clear from the start when they did not shake hands, did not make eye contact during a commercial break and exchanged no moments of levity.

The debate included a felon (Trump) and the oldest pairing in history, with an 81-year-old Biden facing off against a 78-year-old Trump. In many ways it was, in the bluntest terms, a debate in which Biden was attempting to seem less old and Trump trying to appear more controlled.

But arguably neither were entirely successful during the course of 90 minutes, and both seemed to play into the stereotypes that existed before the debate.

Biden in particular seemed to struggle, especially early on. His mouth was often agape as he stood listening to Trump speak, and some of his answers appeared to meander off-topic. He took a question about abortion, one of his strengths, and began talking about immigration, one of his weaknesses.

“Everyone saw the same thing and is saying we’re going to lose if we don’t do something,” said a senior Democrat in a Southern state.

Biden began answering another question by talking about the national debt, then turned to the tax system, eventually vowed to strengthen health care — and then apparently was uncertain where to go next.

“Making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the, with the covid,” he said. “Excuse me, dealing with everything we have to do with … Look … if …”

After a few silent seconds, he offered, “We finally beat Medicare.”

It was unclear what he was referring to when CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the moderators, interjected, “Thank you, President Biden.”

Biden also sought to get under Trump’s skin, repeatedly calling him a “whiner.”

Trump, while speaking with confidence and in an authoritative tone, often spread falsehoods and meandered into baseless conspiracies in remarks that at times were hard to follow.

“I’ve never heard so much malarkey in my whole life,” Biden remarked.

Trump echoed many of the talking points he has made on the campaign trail, insulting Biden and making several false statements, including on abortion and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The former president falsely stated that every legal scholar “in the world” supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

He lapsed into long interludes of hard-to-follow disquisitions that are part of the right-wing ecosystems in which he normally resides, including making unexplained references to Hunter Biden’s laptop.

During a question to the candidates about helping Americans with addiction, Trump accused Biden of being a “Manchurian candidate” and baselessly claiming, “He gets money from China.”

“He’s the worst president,” Trump repeated. “You’re destroying our country.”

Trump, who has been convicted of 34 felony crimes, said, “I did nothing wrong” and vowed to attempt to prosecute Biden for unspecified crimes, saying, “Joe could be a convicted felon as soon as he gets out. He’s done horrible things.”

Biden shot back, “The idea that I did anything wrong is outrageous.”

“How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for molesting a woman in public? For doing a whole range of things, having sex with a porn star … while your wife is pregnant?” the president said. “You have the morals of an alley cat.”

“I did not have sex with a porn star,” Trump replied.

The CNN moderators chose not to challenge Trump’s assertions, even those that were plainly false. And in some ways, Trump was sometimes restrained by the standards of his typical campaign rallies.

He sought to dial down his previous statements that he would unleash a punishing “retribution” against his opponents, saying instead, “My retribution is going to be success.”

He also sought to deflect a question about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, answering by saying that the country was in better condition on that date than it is now. He also falsely claimed that former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had admitted responsibility for the assault.

With two candidates so well known to the country, Thursday’s event was not so much an introduction as an update — on how each has changed, and aged, since they last met last met on the debate stage in October 2020. One is now a felon, the other now the country’s oldest president.

The country has changed a lot since then as well, experiencing the attack on the Capitol, largely moving beyond the pandemic and witnessing the fall of Roe v. Wade.

Biden had previously debated as a U.S. senator, a vice president and a presidential candidate, but in those events his physical presentation had not been under such intense scrutiny. As president, his staff has built accommodations — using a shorter stairway for Air Force One, limiting questions from reporters, using a teleprompter even for small gatherings — but on Thursday, none of those were available.

The third debate between these two men, and the first in four years, showcased the differing demeanors of two presidents, both fighting for a second four-year term.

It is often not the practiced lines and the policy positions that become the most memorable moments of a presidential debate. Usually, it is the way the candidates come across, the seeming ease or apparent discomfort, that creates more lasting impressions.

Four years ago, Trump barreled ahead during the debate, paying no attention to the rules and often interrupting his opponent to the point where an exasperated Biden, with a can-you-believe-this-guy look on his face, called out “Donald, would you just be quiet for a minute?” Then, “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown’s doing?” And eventually, “Will you shut up, man?”

Trump and his supporters spent months before the debate inadvertently lowering expectations for Biden’s performance, repeatedly posting misleading clips appearing to show Biden physically frozen, aimlessly meandering or unable to string a sentence together. Trump has also baselessly suggested that Biden would use performance enhancing drugs to remain alert during the debate, posting on social media this week: “DRUG TEST FOR CROOKED JOE BIDEN??? I WOULD, ALSO, IMMEDIATELY AGREE TO ONE!!!”

Asked about such claims, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling to the debate on Air Force One, “I don’t think that I should dignify that with an answer.”

While Trump and his allies suggested that the CNN moderators would not be fair, Trump refrained from attacking them during the debate. The moderators also did not interject during Trump and Biden’s answers. Yet the debate frequently descended into childish insults, with Trump and Biden seeking to one-up each other up until the end.

“This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent,” Biden remarked.

Toward the end of the debate, it devolved into the two oldest presidents in history squabbling with each other over who had the better golf game.

Trump bragged about winning a golf championship — “two club championships, not even senior, two regular club championships” — which caused Biden to challenge him to a faceoff on the green.

“Look, I’d be happy to have a driving contest with him,” Biden said. “I got my handicap when I was vice president down to a six.”

He said Trump would have to carry his own bag.

“That’s the biggest lie that he was a six handicap,” Trump admonished.

“I was an eight handicap,” Biden said.

“I’ve seen his swing. I know your swing,” Trump responded.

Then he admonished, “Let’s not act like children, Joe. Let’s not act like children.”

“You are a child,” Biden responded.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post