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Biden’s debate performance spurs Democratic panic about his ability to lead party against Trump

ATLANTA (AP) — Above all, Joe Biden ‘s allies wanted him to demonstrate strength and energy on the debate stage Thursday night to help put to rest questions about the 81-year-old Democrat’s physical and mental acuity.

But on the biggest stage in U.S. politics, Biden did not meet their modest expectations.

And by the end of the 90-minute showdown, the Democratic president’s allies — party strategists and rank-and-file voters alike — descended into all-out panic following a debate performance punctuated by repeated stumbles, uncomfortable pauses, and a quiet speaking style that was often difficult to understand. Publicly and privately, Democrats questioned whether the party could or should replace him as the party’s presidential nominee against the 78-year-old former President Donald Trump this fall.

“I’m not the only one whose heart is breaking right now. There’s a lot of people who watched this tonight and felt terribly for Joe Biden,” former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC. “I don’t know if things can be done to fix this.”

For now, the biggest question for Biden is whether the damage is permanent. Many voters have not yet tuned into an election that’s still more than four months away. The president and his allies are sitting on millions of dollars that have yet to be spent on advertising and swing-state infrastructure. And there’s precedent for recovering from rough debate performances, including Barack Obama ‘s rebound from an uneven encounter with Mitt Romney in 2012. Democrat John Fetterman went on to defeat a Republican rival in 2022 after struggling through a debate several months after experiencing a stroke.

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