Biden team works furiously to quell any Democratic revolt after debate

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Publicly, President Biden’s allies have spent the past several days aggressively downplaying his missteps in Thursday’s debate by assailing the “bedwetting brigade” of nervous Democrats, highlighting a record influx of campaign donations and noting the long history of incumbents who stumbled during their first debates.

Privately, they have worked the phones to reassure nervous donors, pleaded with concerned lawmakers to keep their powder dry, and huddled with colleagues to commiserate — while steeling themselves for a battle that could determine not only whether Biden wins the election in November, but whether he will be on the ballot at all.

The push to save Biden’s candidacy, which is ongoing as the president is spending time with his family at Camp David, appears to have at least temporarily stemmed the flood of public doubt and bought the president some time. Still, the ambitious and frenzied effort by the president’s aides, supporters and family members to contain the damage after Biden struggled to make a coherent case against Republican rival Donald Trump during the debate on Thursday. It has also become a case study of a campaign thrust into crisis.

As of Sunday, no major Democratic official has called for Biden to drop out of the race and several have publicly expressed renewed support for him, even as they note that his debate performance has prompted worries about the party’s showing in November.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) acknowledged on MSNBC’s “The Weekend” that House Democrats are involved in conversations over the future of Biden’s candidacy. He noted that, because the House will be in recess next week for the Fourth of July, those conversations will continue over the phone and virtually.

But he added that “one thing should be clear: There is a big difference between our view of the world, the country and the future, and the extreme MAGA Republican view.”

Biden’s performance on Thursday “certainly was a setback,” Jeffries added. “But of course, I believe a setback is nothing more than a setup for a comeback.”

Other top Democrats — including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.), and Sens. Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.) and Chris Coons (Del.) — all appeared on various television channels Sunday to recommit to backing the president’s reelection bid.

The public show of support came on the heels of a harried private effort that began even before the debate ended on Thursday, as private group chats, hushed conversations and social media teemed with consternation about Democrats’ prospects.

Biden aides began telling the media as the debate was underway that the president had a cold, rationalizing his thin, raspy voice and unsteady delivery. Vice President Harris said immediately afterward that his “slow start” was not a sign of a broader weakness, and campaign surrogates in the spin room tried to shift the focus from Biden’s stumbles to Trump’s falsehoods and extreme comments.

The push continued Friday and through the weekend, including a rush of activity by Biden, his wife, Jill, and other allies that came against the backdrop of top editorial boards, columnists and Democratic commentators calling on the president to exit the race.

In the days since the debate, a wave of influential voices that have previously backed Biden, including New Yorker editor David Remnick, New York Times columnists Tom Friedman and Nick Kristof, and “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, have called on the president to pull out of the race or at least seriously consider it.

During a virtual Democratic National Committee meeting Saturday, which was hastily scheduled less than 24 hours before, leaders implored their members to stick behind Biden.

“We have to have his back,” DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said, according to members on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Harrison acknowledged that Biden had not gotten younger, but emphasized the message that he was not a liar like Trump, one person recalled.

However, the call did not provide an opportunity for members to share their concerns with the party’s leaders; there was no question-and-answer session and the chat function was disabled. Such moves frustrated members who had hoped for a more honest conversation about the party’s difficult path forward.

Party leaders and campaign officials, instead, bragged about their fundraising success, yard sign distribution, house parties and surrogate events. They explained a strategy to bring in social media influencers to the Democratic convention in Chicago.

Harrison concluded the call by telling the members he was going on a Disney cruise, fulfilling a promise he made to his children. The event did not eliminate doubts, while stoking the frustration of some.

“It’s a confident bunch,” said one person who participated. “This is all competent. But who knows if it is enough.”

One Democratic House member said the call was “terrible” and the message wasn’t based in reality.

Jeffries and other Democrats in House leadership have been privately telling worried lawmakers from competitive districts to stay quiet for a few more days and see what happens, the member said.

Despite the pressure campaign, at least some elected Democrats are publicly voicing their concerns and others are awaiting polling numbers before speaking out one way or the other.

Appearing on MSNBC on Sunday, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said there was a “big problem with Joe Biden’s debate performance.”

“There are very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party,” he said.

For his part, Biden has tried to showcase a more forceful public visage than the stumbling, raspy-voiced debater millions of Americans watched at the prime-time event his campaign negotiated and advocated for.

He has held several events in recent days, including a raucous rally in Raleigh, N.C., where he vigorously prosecuted the case against Trump while debuting a new line acknowledging his age and limitations directly.

“I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to,” Biden said, his voice rising as the crowd responded in kind. “But … I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. I know how to do this job.”

Several Democrats have pointed to the Raleigh event as a critical moment of reassurance, even as they questioned the sharp difference between the president’s performance at the debate and his rally appearance one day later.

“That is the Joe Biden we all know and love, and frankly the one we had hoped would have shown up on the debate stage,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist who remains committed to backing Biden’s reelection.

Cardona, who was on the DNC call on Saturday, dismissed the “tangential chatter from strategists and pundits and editorial boards” calling on Biden to drop out.

“They don’t really matter,” she said. “What really matters are the elected officials, the donors and the voters.”

Around the same time Biden was rallying in Raleigh, he received a critical message of support from former president Barack Obama, whose own shaky debate in 2012 also rocked his reelection bid.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” Obama posted on social media Friday afternoon. “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.”

Back at Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Del., several staffers gathered to watch the rally Friday, standing up and celebrating as they saw a more energized Biden in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 supporters.

During an all-hands staff meeting afterward, campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon sought to rally the troops, acknowledging the rough night and encouraging aides to focus on drawing a sharp contrast with Trump.

“We’ve all been through hard times,” she told the gathered staff, according to a recording of the meeting. “We’ve all wished something went a little bit better than maybe it did. And then our job and our decision is, can we keep going to fight for it and make sure we put in the work, and that’s what I think the president has done.”

In a series of memos, the campaign has sought to downplay the concerns of pundits and commentators who claimed Biden had done irreparable harm to his candidacy during the debate. They have pointed to a flood of donations — more than $33 million so far since Thursday — and other metrics that suggest voters are still on board with Biden.

On Saturday, O’Malley Dillon released a memo saying that despite the poor performance, little had changed about a race that she had long expected would remain close until the end. She suggested that any polls that showed Biden bleeding support would only be temporary and the result of “overblown media narratives.”

Hours later, deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty went a step further in a sharply worded memo to supporters aimed at forcefully combating those who have tried to force Biden out of the race.

“The bedwetting brigade is calling for Joe Biden to ‘drop out,’” he wrote. “That is the best possible way for Donald Trump to win and us to lose. First of all: Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee, period. End of story. Voters voted.”

He suggested that Biden stepping aside would lead to weeks of chaos and internal fighting among Democrats, all serving to boost Trump’s chances.

Such an argument must weigh heavily on Biden’s mind as he considers his place in history and thinks about the implications of what it would mean to end his presidential bid prematurely, said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian.

“Biden holds all the cards here,” he said. “As long as he says he’s going to run, he gets to keep running. It doesn’t matter what Tom Friedman says. It doesn’t matter what Nick Kristof says. It’s Biden’s decision.”

Mariana Alfaro and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

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