Democratic governors reportedly waiting in wings after dire Biden debate

With the White House scrambling to prevent Joe Biden’s candidacy being enveloped in a full-blown crisis, several state governors were said to be subtly positioning themselves as late substitutes while avoiding being seen to do so.

The Biden campaign has launched a counter-offensive, including furious networking among senior Democrats, to counteract fears that the 81-year-old president’s frail appearance in last week’s debate had made defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in November’s election inevitable.

But while several governors – seen as the next generation of Democrats’ leadership – have publicly avowed loyalty to Biden, they are keenly watching for slippage in Biden’s already fragile poll standings and a loss of support among donors in the next two weeks.

Related: Who could replace Joe Biden? Here are six possibilities

“The temperature is high,” one Democratic governor told Politico, referring to the state of mind among the party’s state leaders . “A lot of anxiety, a lot of folks at the edge of their seats.”

Gavin Newsom, the governor of California and a key Biden surrogate, defended the president immediately after Thursday’s disastrous debate performance, saying he would “never turn my back” on him. But he was widely seen to have expressed ambiguity by saying that he was ready “to step up”.

The Maryland governor, Wes Moore, another candidate touted as a potential substitute, has publicly said he will not seek the Democratic nomination and that he does not foresee Biden leaving the race. Other governors whose names have been floated are of Pennsylvania – another vital battleground state – and JB Pritzker of Illinois.

But while no elected Democrat at a national level has yet echoed calls among many other figures, including top liberal media outlets, for Biden to step down, the public displays of support run counter to what Democrats acknowledge is happening behind the scenes.

In one of the most outspoken acknowledgements by a senior party figure, Jamie Raskin, a Democratic congressman from Maryland, told MSNBC 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.

In a Facebook post shared Sunday morning, former Democratic National Committee vice chair RT Rybak, called for a public push for Democratic leaders to get Biden to stand aside.

“Our elected officials are staying shockingly silent in public, especially considering how many of them acknowledge privately that this has to happen,” he wrote. “They fear political retribution but they should really fear that if we lose this election because they didn’t have the guts to do what they know needs to be done, holy hell and history will come down on them like an anvil.”

The ambivalence between public and private support was crystallised in the position of Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan – a key swing state deemed essential for the Democrats to win in November to retain the White House.

Related: If Biden drops out now, how do the Democrats choose a new candidate?

Whitmer reportedly called the chair of Biden’s campaign, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, on Friday to disavow a putative “draft Gretchen movement” and insist that she was not behind speculation mooting her as a possible replacement candidate.

But in a graphic sign of the raised stakes, Biden insiders leaked an underlying message that Whitmer had also relayed – that Michigan was no longer winnable for Biden following the debate.

The revelation was seen as a sign that rivals want to damage Whitmer, a twice elected governor nicknamed Big Gretch and whose autobiography, True Gretch, comes out this month, to be promoted with a tour of book-buying venues like Nantucket, San Francisco and Martha’s Vineyard that are also known as key Democrat donor capitals.

But if other Democratic governors are keen to both remain loyal yet also ready to pounce, one Biden aide said that no candidate has a strong enough support base to beat the vice-president, Kamala Harris.

A Biden aide told Politico that the governors would “all love an easy sprint”, but suggested that even if Biden stepped aside and opened up a nominating contest at the Democratic national convention in August, Harris would be the clear forerunner.

“And none of them are ready for this, especially her [Whitmer],” the aide said.

The Biden campaign has made it known that it plans to fend off potential challenges furiously, targeting donors, re-doubling ties with Democratic congressional leaders, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer, and plugging polling evidence supposedly showing that the debate’s impact was less damaging than widely assumed.

It is also considering making Biden – who has been carefully shielded during his presidency – more available for press conferences and tough interviews to counteract the narrative that he no longer has the mental capacity to be president.

But in an ominous sign, Democratic congressional candidates are distancing themselves from the president and his entourage, calculating that association with him could damage them in their own election races.

Despite public declarations of support for Biden, there was little disguising the degree of concern over the weekend.

“There is an enormous amount of affection and deference to the president – but nobody thinks this is sustainable,” Politico quoted one senior Democratic aide.

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