Biden’s Shaky Debate Performance Has Democrats Panicking

President Biden hoped to build fresh momentum for his re-election bid by agreeing to debate two months before he is formally nominated. Instead, his halting and disjointed performance on Thursday night prompted a wave of panic among Democrats and reopened discussion of whether he should be the nominee at all.

Over the course of 90 minutes, a raspy-voiced Mr. Biden struggled to deliver his lines and counter a sharp though deeply dishonest former President Donald J. Trump, raising doubts about the incumbent president’s ability to wage a vigorous and competitive campaign four months before the election. Rather than dispel concerns about his age, Mr. Biden, 81, made it the central issue.

Democrats who have defended the president for months against his doubters — including members of his own administration — traded frenzied phone calls and text messages within minutes of the start of the debate as it became clear that Mr. Biden was not at his sharpest. Some took to social media to express shock at his troubles, while others privately discussed among themselves what it would mean for the party and whether it was too late to persuade the president to step aside in favor of a younger candidate.

“Biden is about to face a crescendo of calls to step aside,” said a veteran Democratic strategist who has staunchly backed Mr. Biden publicly. “Joe had a deep well of affection among Democrats. It has run dry.”

“Parties exist to win,” this Democrat continued. “The man on the stage with Trump cannot win. The fear of Trump stifled criticism of Biden. Now that same fear is going to fuel calls for him to step down.”

Mr. Biden’s goal in accepting a general election debate earlier than ever held in presidential history was to recalibrate the contest as a choice between him and a felon who tried to overturn an election and would destroy American democracy if given the power of the presidency again. Mr. Biden left the CNN studio in Atlanta instead facing a referendum on himself and his capacity that will reverberate for days if not longer.

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