Democrats fret while awaiting signs of how Biden will weather debate debacle

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders are nervously waiting to see whether a fresh round of polling shows that Joe Biden’s support has collapsed and he has become a drag on congressional races before they take a unified stance on whether he should drop out of the race, interviews with lawmakers, strategists and donors show.

So far, Biden’s campaign team has largely staved off mass defections through a choreographed effort to reassure party officials that he retains a viable path to re-election.

Yet many officeholders and Democratic donors remain unnerved by Biden’s weak performance at the debate last week with Donald Trump and are awaiting a more definitive sign from voters before they reaffirm their support for his candidacy. There is a sense among Democrats that Biden still needs to mitigate the fallout by proactively demonstrating he has the physical and mental fitness to remain in office.

For now, Biden’s campaign is in a wait-and-see mode, a person familiar with internal discussions said. The view inside Biden world is that no Democratic leader will step forward and call for him to drop out absent worrisome new polling data.

Money — specifically, the lack of it — is often what ends political campaigns. If donors abandon Biden, he could have few options but to withdraw, the person said.

“Donors are in a full panic. … And the Biden inner circle has got to have gotten that message,” a Democratic source familiar with party fundraising said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “Donors want to send a strong message, and the only way they know how is not to cut that check.”

A few prominent Democrats are breaking ranks with Biden, calling for him to withdraw in favor of a younger, more inspiring candidate to lead the fight against Trump.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first sitting Democratic member of Congress to say Biden should step aside. In a statement Tuesday, Doggett said Biden “has continued to run substantially behind Democratic senators in key states, and in most polls has trailed Donald Trump. I had hoped that the debate would provide some momentum to change that. It did not.”

In a newspaper op-ed Tuesday, Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, wrote that Biden’s “poor” debate performance didn’t surprise him and that he expects that Trump will win in November.

Just last year, Golden accompanied Biden on Air Force One and Marine One in a visit to the Maine district. At the time, Golden told NBC News that Biden “believes in the character of normal American people.” (Golden is one of only five House Democrats representing districts won by Trump.)

A second Democratic lawmaker said he and other lawmakers are getting pressured by donors to publicly come out against Biden. “Our phones are blowing up with text messages and people saying, ‘When are you going to come out and call for him to step aside?’” the lawmaker said.

Another Democratic House member said he leaned toward wanting Biden to end his campaign but wanted to “see the polling” first.

Amid the uncertainty, some Democrats are beginning to game out what might happen if Biden opts to withdraw.

The void atop the ticket might expose deep fissures inside the party. Some Democratic leaders would line up behind Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black vice president, while others might champion an official who would be a pioneer in her own right and who represents a battleground state, like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, an influential Democratic leader whose endorsement in 2020 revived Biden’s struggling primary campaign, made it clear where he stands in an interview Tuesday with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.

“This party should not in any way do anything to work around Ms. Harris,” Clyburn said. “We should do everything we can to bolster her, whether it’s in second place or at the top of the ticket.”

The first of two planned presidential debates has plunged Biden’s party into murky political terrain. In the modern history of the office, no sitting president has withdrawn from a race so late in the electoral calendar.

President Lyndon Johnson came the closest, announcing in March 1968 — eight months before the election — that he wouldn’t run for another term in the face of widespread protests over his escalation of the Vietnam War. Were Biden to pull out now, a replacement would have only four months to step in and wage a campaign.

Biden campaign aides held a conference call Monday with the campaign’s major fundraisers, who posed questions that suggest donors are indeed anxious. A person on the call asked what the campaign would do if new polls showed dramatic erosion in Biden’s support.

Quentin Fulks, the deputy campaign manager, replied that “the media has spent a lot of time blowing this out of proportion.”

Blaming the media is a tactic both parties use. But many Democrats say they are losing patience with White House assurances that Biden is fit and the election is winnable.

An insular White House senior staff and campaign operation have stage-managed Biden’s public appearances for years, surrounding him with teleprompters and note cards that have given a misleading impression of his overall fitness, some Democrats contend.

The Democratic House member who spoke on condition of anonymity said he didn’t wish to speak to the White House after the debate because he didn’t want to “hear the BS.”

One adjustment to Biden’s routine should be putting him in front of voters without the protective bubble wrap that makes a halting debate performance that much more alarming, Democratic lawmakers said.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from the battleground state of Michigan, said: “After last Thursday’s debate, he has to be seen. People need to see him, and he needs to show people he’s up to the job.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. said: “He needs to do town halls and small roundtables with voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia and be as visible with voters as possible.”

So far, only one such appearance is scheduled. Biden has agreed to an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos this week, a forum where he can expect questions about his cognitive health.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a former Biden staff member from his days in the Senate, said Biden must aggressively work to prove that the debate was truly just one “bad night” and not indicative of something worse.

Connolly suggested that Biden take part in town hall events and rallies. Giving more interviews would also help, he said.

Biden has given 128 interviews at this point in his presidency, the fewest of any president since Ronald Reagan, according to research compiled by Martha Kumar, an emeritus professor of political science at Towson State University.

For two years in a row, he has declined a Super Bowl interview, forgoing a chance to address millions of viewers tuning in to see the game. Aides said by way of explanation that viewers were exhausted with politics and preferred to watch football.

“You now have to work harder — a lot harder — to resolve those doubts. Otherwise, this is lethal,” Connolly said in an interview. “You’ve got to get out there like you’ve never done it before, and in an exhaustive way, to reassure people that was indeed a bad night and that’s all it was.”

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