Biden Clings to Campaign, But Skepticism Persists in Party

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden survived the most critical day of his campaign reset, avoiding major missteps in a pivotal prime-time interview and earning a warm reception at a raucous Wisconsin rally.

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It’s unlikely to stifle the increasing calls for him to drop out of the race.

The president flatly declared his intention to remain atop the Democratic ticket, arguing that he still believed he could defeat former President Donald Trump – and that efforts to compel him to withdraw were a disservice to primary voters who had supported his reelection effort.

He insisted that a bad 90-minute debate shouldn’t invalidate the accomplishments of the presidency, swore he was not hiding a more serious medical condition and predicted voters would ultimately judge him favorably to Trump.

“Let me say it as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race,” Biden said. “I’ll beat Donald Trump.”

But ultimately, voters, donors and Democratic allies will spend the coming days weighing whether the president was determined or delusional.

Biden spent much of his conversation with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Friday insisting that pollsters, pundits, and politicians had it all wrong:

He didn’t believe he was trailing Trump, or that opinion surveys were reliable. Most Americans didn’t think his age was an issue, or share concerns he wouldn’t be able to serve four more years. He didn’t see any other Democrat who would make a better candidate and he didn’t need to take an independent neurological test to reassure the country.

“I’ve convinced myself of two things: I’m the most qualified person to beat him, and I know how to get things done,” Biden said.

A Bloomberg News/Morning Consult tracking poll of battleground states released Saturday shows Biden registering his best showing yet even as voters offered withering appraisals of his debate performance. Trump led Biden by only 2 percentage points, 47% to 45%, in the critical states needed to win in November, the smallest gap since the poll began last October.

Biden’s steadfast insistence that he sees no reason for concern risks reinforcing skeptical allies’ agita. Senator Mark Warner, an influential Virginia Democrat, is seeking to assemble a group of senior lawmakers to push him to exit the presidential race, Biden acknowledged Friday.

The efforts come as networks announced the booking of prominent senators – including Connecticut’s Chris Murphy and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders – who might use appearances on Sunday programs to drive a stake into the president’s beleaguered campaign.

In the House, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries scheduled a conference call of top committee Democrats for Sunday afternoon, amid a behind-closed-doors campaign by lawmakers to gather signatures for a letter urging Biden’s departure. Representative Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat in a close race for reelection, on Saturday called for Biden to step aside as the party’s nominee, joining a handful of other House colleagues who have made similar statements in recent days.

Online, Republican activists seized on relatively minor missteps - like Biden’s declaration that he’d beat Trump in the 2020 election, his incorrect claim that Warner had sought the presidency, or apparent uncertainty about whether he had rewatched the debate — to further their argument he was unwell.

Biden downplayed his concern while speaking to reporters on Friday, saying he wasn’t aware of any senators who had joined Warner’s effort. He added that he’d spoken to at least 20 members of Congress and they’d encouraged him to stay in the contest.

Even if Democrats continue to voice support for the president, the Washington Post, which first revealed Warner’s plans, reported that lawmakers might demand a proof-of-life meeting for senators, like the sit-down the president held for Democratic governors on Wednesday.

The outcome of that meeting was decidedly mixed.

While most Democrats publicly pledged to support Biden’s continued campaign, others expressed alarm that he joked his brain wasn’t working and signaled his plans to schedule fewer events at night, instead making sleep a priority.

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey on Friday issued a statement urging Biden “to listen to the American people and carefully evaluate whether he remains our best hope to defeat Donald Trump.” Biden later said that Healey hadn’t raised concerns during the meeting.

Ultimately, Democrats may not be able to force an unwilling Biden from the race. He repeatedly rejected questions about the notion on Friday, saying he could not conceive of leaders coalescing against his campaign.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said ‘Joe get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race,” Biden said. “But he’s not coming down.”

Yet a fractured party could doom his electoral prospects — and those of fellow Democrats.

On Friday, a coalition of dozens of top business leaders sent Biden a letter urging him to drop his reelection bid, the latest signal that the donors underwriting the president’s campaign may be balking.

The road ahead doesn’t get any less perilous for the president.

On Sunday, he’ll head to a series of campaign stops across Pennsylvania – a must-win swing state that his campaign has poured time and resources into.

The president originally was scheduled to address the National Education Association, but scrapped those plans when administrative employees for the teachers union went on strike. Instead, he’ll look to shore up support with Black voters in a visit to a local church, and then plans to head to the state capital of Harrisburg for an ice cream social.

The push in the Keystone State comes with Trump scheduling a July 13 rally in Butler, a northern exurb of Pittsburgh, just days before the Republican National Convention.

After that, Biden will again come under the magnifying glass as he welcomes world leaders to the NATO summit in Washington. The schedule is expected to be grueling – including, White House officials pointed out dryly in response to reporters’ questions – events late in the evening, and foreign leaders and diplomats have already expressed alarm about the president’s stamina at other recent international summits.

The week will be capped by a high-stakes solo press conference on Thursday, in which the president is expected to be peppered about his age and acuity.

Speaking to a group of supporters after his speech in Wisconsin, Biden thanked them for sticking with him despite his missteps - and acknowledged the road ahead.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

(Updates with Craig statement in 13th paragraph.)

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