Biden resists allies' calls to exit race after debate performance: 'I know I'm not a young man'

President Biden beat back calls Friday from allies that he consider bowing out of his reelection bid, following up Thursday’s weak debate performance with a firmly voiced promise to defeat former President Trump.

“I give you my word as a Biden: I would not be running again if I didn’t believe with all my heart and soul I can do this job,” he said at a boisterous rally in North Carolina with his wife, Jill Biden, as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” played behind him.

The show of determination — including his ability to project his voice and crack jokes while reading from a teleprompter — presented a starkly different image of the president than at Thursday night’s debate, where he hoarsely fumbled his words, often lost his train of thought and failed to rebut many of Trump’s talking points and false claims.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” the 81-year-old Biden said Friday. “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong and I know how to do this job.”

“I know like millions of Americans know,” he continued. “When you get knocked down you get back up.”

The speech is unlikely to quell the concern among independent voters and many of Biden’s allies that he blew the debate, by far his biggest opportunity to dispel doubts about his age and acuity.

He awoke Friday to a torrent of liberal columnists, Democratic operatives and his favorite television host questioning whether he should drop out of the presidential race following a debate performance that focused attention on his advanced age.

“If he were CEO and he turned in a performance like that, would any corporation in America, any Fortune 500 corporation in America keep him on as CEO?” asked Joe Scarborough during a tough opening monologue of his MSNBC show “Morning Joe.”

The question before Biden is momentous. He and other Democrats have called Trump an existential threat to democracy and many of those calling for Biden to step aside cited the importance of keeping Trump out of the White House as their overriding concern, even as many defended Biden’s job performance beyond the debate.

Party rules make it virtually impossible to replace Biden without his consent, and he showed little indication Friday that he would bow out. Even if Biden has a change of heart, it presents a raft of risks and obstacles, including settling on a replacement at a brokered convention and selling a new candidate to the American public in a 2½-month sprint.

Vice President Kamala Harris, the most obvious heir apparent, has struggled in polls along with Biden. Other potential replacements include California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who have not been tested on the national stage.

“It’s not clear by panicking and pushing out Biden that [Democrats] will be in a better position,” said Gil Duran, a former aide to Harris and other Democrats. “Then the narrative becomes, ‘Oh, my God, this has never been done before, the Democrats are creating a historic mistake, no one changes course midstream.’ There’s really no way to win.”

The question Friday was whether people close to Biden would urge him to make that decision and whether he would listen if they did.

In the immediate aftermath, even his closest allies conceded that he struggled. “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” former President Obama wrote on the social media platform X. “But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said he didn’t know whether the party should urge Biden to withdraw but did not close the door either — urging a thoughtful discussion while conceding there is not much time.

“There’s nothing about this that’s simple,” he said in an interview. “Everybody’s got to sort this out the best way they can. And I do think that some time to gather perspective is really important.”

He regretted that Biden failed to refute Trump’s “fire hose of lies and wildly extreme statements.”

“I hope he’s out there mustering as much energy and good messaging as he can,” Huffman added about Biden. “We just had a rough night last night, and it was one of the messiest, ugliest presidential debates I’ve ever seen, probably the worst.”

Biden was hoping to erase the bad reviews with the campaign rally in North Carolina, projecting an optimistic signal that his campaign was trying to expand the electoral map. The last time the reliably red state voted for a Democrat was when Obama ran in 2008. But recent elections have been tight — Trump beat Biden there by 1.3 percentage points in 2020.

But even before the debate, the Biden and Trump campaigns’ travel schedules indicated vulnerability for the incumbent. Harris was scheduled to address Latino voters in Nevada on Friday, while Trump was headed to Virginia. Both states last voted for a Republican to win the White House in 2004, indicating that Trump’s campaign is trying to grow his electoral map while Harris is trying to shore up a Democratic state where the presumptive GOP nominee has been leading in the polls for months.

In the aftermath of the face-off, the Biden campaign appeared to be putting out a concerted message acknowledging that the president’s performance was subpar, while also pointing to the many falsehoods Trump uttered during the debate.

“Look, he had a bad night,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat and Biden campaign surrogate, said on Fox News. “It’s incumbent upon us to go out and make the case about how the country is moving in the right direction versus what you saw from the former president, which is a list of grievances.”

Trump told Fox News Digital he did not expect Biden to withdraw either.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “No one else would have been better.”

Advisors who spoke anonymously tried to downplay the importance of the face-off with Trump, which they said he won on substance, by noting that debates seldom move polls. And some Democrats were publicly urging their fellow party members to stay the course.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York offered a terse “no” when asked by reporters whether Biden should drop out.

“Republicans are like Tammy Wynette, they stand by their man,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a longtime California political consultant who has advised Harris and others. “And if Dems want to win in November, we must do the same.”

Christine Pelosi, a longtime delegate to the Democratic National Convention and daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the former House speaker, doubted Biden would withdraw but said he must act quickly to change the perception he created in the debate.

“Needs a course correct and a timely long unscripted interview to show that this was a terrible debate — as Obama and Reagan both had with their first re-elect debates — and not an ongoing condition,” she said in a text message.

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