Biden insists his debate was just a ‘bad night,’ but admits he hasn’t watched it

US President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin, on July 5, 2024.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden insisted Friday that his damaging debate performance against former President Donald Trump was just a “bad night,” and not an indication of a more serious health condition.

“I was exhausted,” Biden told ABC News‘ George Stephanopoulos, in his first face-to-face TV interview since his raspy and disconnected debate last week.

“I didn’t listen to my instincts, in terms of preparing, and [had] a bad night,” said Biden, who also referred to his performance as a “bad episode.”

When Stephanopoulos noted that Biden had returned from an overseas foreign policy trip in Europe about 11 days before the debate and spent six days at Camp David beforehand, Biden said, “I was sick, I was feeling terrible.”

Asked if he watched the debate later, Biden briefly paused and said, “I don’t think I did, no.”

He also said repeatedly that his performance was “nobody’s fault [but] mine.”

The interview came on the same day that Biden defiantly rejected a growing chorus of Democrats who are urging the 81-year-old incumbent to withdraw from the race.

“I’m completely ruling that out,” Biden told reporters on a tarmac in Wisconsin following a campaign stop. The president said he had spoken to “at least 20” members of Congress who are “telling me to stay in the race.”

The decision could set the campaign on a path of increasing tension with some of its top allies and donors who, spurred by concerns about Biden’s health and abilities, have called for a new nominee to lead the Democratic Party into the November elections.

Biden spoke with Stephanopoulos after the campaign rally, and ABC will broadcast the interview during a “primetime special” on Friday at 8 p.m. ET. An advance clip aired during ABC’s “World News Tonight with David Muir.”

Earlier in the day in Madison, Wisc., Biden told a crowd of supporters, “I am running and going to win again.”

“They’re trying to push me out of the race,” Biden told the crowd. “Well let me say this as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race.”

“I’m not letting one 90-minute debate wipe out 3 1/2 years of work,” he added.

The ABC interview has been saddled with high stakes for the president, who needs to assure his supporters that he can continue campaigning effectively. But it is far from clear if a single interview, even a successful one, can reverse the damage from the debate against the 78-year-old Trump.

While Biden sounded consistently louder and clearer in Friday’s speech than he did in last week’s debate, he still occasionally slurred or fumbled over certain words and phrases.

President Biden's interview tonight could be even more important than the debate, says Frank Luntz

Frustration mounts among Dems

The ABC interview could mark an inflection point for the Biden campaign, which in the wake of the ruinous debate has faced mounting calls from top donors, political allies and supporters in the media to replace the top of the Democratic ticket.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a longtime Biden ally, has launched a new effort to convene Democratic senators next week to discuss what Biden’s path forward might be, NBC News reported.

Asked on the tarmac about Warner’s effort, the president dismissed it. Warner, he said, “is the only one considering that. No one else has called me to do that.”

On Thursday, Disney heiress and longtime Democratic donor Abigail Disney told CNBC that she will withhold donations until Biden withdraws.

On Wednesday, a group of business leaders corralled by the pro-Democracy Leadership Now Project urged Biden to step aside.

Editorial boards of multiple newspapers, including The New York Times, have issued the same call.

Questions are now swirling about how an alternative candidate, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, might take Biden’s place as the new nominee.

The Trump campaign and Republican Party, in turn, have started ramping up attacks on Harris.

Harris told CBS News on Tuesday, “Joe Biden is our nominee. We beat Trump once, and we’re going to beat him again. Period.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre held the line in a gaggle with reporters who peppered her with questions about Biden’s capabilities during the flight to Madison.

“He said he had a bad debate,” Jean-Pierre conceded. But “90 minutes should not overshadow his career, his three-and-a-half [year] tenure as president.”

Biden, she added, “is resolute, strong [and] thinking as clearly as he used to.”

But that solid front — buttressed by subsequent statements of support from Democratic governors and other allies — has done little to tamp down the anxieties of Trump’s opponents.

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Polls are shifting

Biden, the oldest president ever to serve and would be 86 at the end of a second term, was already struggling before the debate to boost his limp approval ratings.

National polls have consistently showed a neck-and-neck race, but some surveys gave Trump an edge in the key swing states that carried Biden to victory in 2020. Meanwhile, wide swaths of voters have repeatedly expressed concerns about Biden’s age and fitness for office.

After the debate, polls from major media outlets, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, all showed Trump gaining on Biden.

This is developing news. Please check back for updates.

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