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Biden team courts skittish Democrats as path to replace him narrows

President Biden’s senior advisers ramped up efforts to soothe skittish Democrats on Monday, placing a flurry of calls to lawmakers, contacting donors and circulating an internal poll suggesting he had not lost ground after his much-criticized debate performance. At the same time, party officials finalized a timeline to formally nominate Biden within weeks, a move that could limit talk of alternative candidates.

Taken together, the actions by the small circle of Biden’s most loyal advisers were meant to reemphasize that the president has no plans to exit the race despite calls from a range of allies who worry he cannot recover from last week’s debate performance, which at times created an image of a raspy-voiced elderly man who struggled to complete a thought.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign chair, held an urgent call with more than 500 donors Monday evening to try to stabilize a network whose members have spent the past several days in a frenzy of text messages and phone calls, discussing their renewed fears and widespread anxiety about the president’s chances.

She acknowledged that the debate did not go as they had hoped and that the campaign has significant work to do, according to people on the call. But she also reiterated the challenges for Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, and said the Biden campaign did not believe the contours of the race had been altered by the debate.

Meanwhile, Democratic Partly leaders are pushing ahead with plans to formally nominate Biden in a virtual roll call Aug. 5, two weeks before their convention Aug. 19-22 in Chicago. That vote was originally a technicality to meet Ohio’s early candidate certification deadline; the deadline has now been pushed back and the virtual nomination is unnecessary, but party leaders are proceeding with it.

The Aug. 5 date has not been finalized. But if it holds, Biden would become the official nominee in about five weeks, leaving no chance for the open nominating convention that some have proposed.

The flurry of activity highlighted the agonized state of the Democratic Party: Despite painful doubts about Biden’s prospects in the general election, Democrats are moving toward nominating a candidate many view as damaged against an opponent many view as catastrophic. Some are anxiously waiting for independent polls to emerge in the coming days, showing either a significant drop in Biden’s support or an electorate unfazed by Thursday’s performance.

Biden himself spoke from the White House late in the day to criticize a Supreme Court decision granting the president immunity for acts undertaken in his official capacity. He used the moment to underline his argument that whatever his own shortcomings, a second Trump presidency would be catastrophic for American democracy.

“For all practical purposes, today’s decision almost certainly means that there are virtually no limits on what the president can do,” he said, adding that he pledges “to respect the limits of the presidential powers.” He noted that the decision means it is “highly unlikely” that Trump will be prosecuted before the election in November, which he called “a terrible disservice to the people of this nation.”

Biden spent the past two days at the Camp David presidential retreat, and the mood in the White House on Monday was quiet and somber, staffers said. Jeff Zients, Biden’s chief of staff, acknowledged on a call with top aides that it had been a tough weekend but urged them to focus on the administration’s work.

Zients and Steve Ricchetti, another top White House aide, have spoken with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) as part of their efforts to calm the waters, according to people familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private discussions.

Though some allies are urging Biden to look for ways to show his continued vigor, his office has released a light schedule of activities for this week.

Some advisers have discussed responding to the concerns about the president’s age and abilities by doing a television interview, but no final decision has been made. Biden is 81 years old, and Trump is 78.

No prominent Democratic officeholder has called on Biden to leave the race, and many are forcefully expressing ongoing support. But some party strategists said they do not believe that the Biden campaign can continue as before after engineering a June debate — with the goal of laying to rest concerns about Biden’s clarity of thought — only to have it backfire.

“It’s the way gambling works,” one Democratic strategist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank about a sensitive issue. “If you make a bet and you lose, you pay up. This is a huge bet that they made, and they lost.”

The Biden campaign has been releasing a steady drumbeat of fundraising figures to show that support has not faltered. But at least some of Biden’s high-dollar donors are clearly rattled. One top fundraiser said that “it’s Armageddon” among donors. “Unless he shakes up the campaign and shows leadership, it’s going to be a really, really tough time with money,” this Democrat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid appraisal. “People have got to see changes.”

One major supporter, who has given to Biden but mostly focuses on democracy-related nonprofit work, created a Google Doc on Friday to poll other donors about the path forward after the debate.

This person, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect the participants and their associates, said 65 donors responded over the weekend. About 74 percent supported the option that read “we need a Plan B,” including consideration of new Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Participants could also say they continued to support Biden (15 percent) or were not sure yet (11 percent).

Some Democrats say they are frustrated because they want to raise what they see as urgently needed questions about Biden’s viability, but they worry that that could give fodder to the Trump campaign.

“If he’s our horse, you’re undermining your candidate,” a prominent Democratic strategist in a swing state said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. “It’s a no-win situation.”

That has not stopped governors and lawmakers from “freaking out” and demanding conference calls to figure out what to do, the strategist said, but “the problem is there is nothing to do for anybody” because only Biden and his inner circle can decide whether he withdraws.

The president already faced a challenge attracting enthusiasm from such groups as young people and Black voters. Now, there is growing concern that plummeting enthusiasm could impact not just Biden but other Democrats, giving Republicans a better chance in gubernatorial, Senate and House races.

One member of the Democratic National Committee expressed frustration at the campaign’s insistence that voters appreciated the president’s optimism about the country and were repelled by Trump’s apocalyptic worldview during the debate. The DNC member said that despite deep doubts about Biden, the party’s leaders have been unwilling to entertain serious discussions about replacing him on the ticket.

This person said Democrats’ determination to stand by Biden reminded them of Republicans’ history of rallying behind Trump despite his falsehoods, criminal convictions and anti-democratic tendencies.

A key Biden strategy before the debate was to try make the election about Trump’s ostensible unfitness for office. On Monday, Biden campaign officials tried to amplify that argument in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that Trump is immune from prosecution for official acts he took as president, although that immunity may not shield all his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

“The danger of a second Trump presidency cannot be underscored,” Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) said on a call organized by the Biden campaign. “It is far and away the biggest threat since the Civil War. If Joe Biden is not elected in November, we will not have the democracy that we have known for 250 years.”

Campaign officials largely deflected questions about Biden’s debate performance or whether it has prompted any change in strategy, simply declaring that the threat of Trump is more important.

“I’m scared as s—. And I think Americans are scared, and should be scared, of what Donald Trump will do, because he’s been telling us for months,” Quentin Fulks, the principal deputy campaign manager, said on the call.

The campaign also released an ad Monday focusing on Trump’s own debate performance, in which he was far more forceful and animated than Biden but offered numerous falsehoods.

“The most lies told in a single debate,” Biden said in the ad, which showed remarks he made at a rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday. “He lied about the great economy he created. He lied about the pandemic he botched. And then his biggest lie — he lied about how he had nothing to do with the insurrection on January 6th.”

Geoff Garin, a top pollster for the Biden campaign, circulated new internal poll results that he said showed the president’s standing was unchanged, aimed at bolstering the campaign’s argument that the debate performance told voters nothing they did not already know. Many who support Biden, they contend, have long recognized that he is exhibiting signs of age but are backing him nonetheless.

Garin said the online poll, conducted for the campaign over the weekend, showed that Trump holds a narrow lead in a head-to-head test against Biden that is similar to the one he held in May. Garin predicted that public and private polling over the coming weeks will show the same result.

“We think this measures the impact of the debate, and really the full impact of the debate,” Garin said in an interview. “Those voters who were concerned about his performance are sticking by him in overwhelming numbers and just think that Trump is a completely unacceptable alternative.”

At the same time, O’Malley Dillon warned Democrats over the weekend that a dip in the polls might be coming because of “overblown media narratives” about Biden’s performance. Many Democratic donors and elected leaders say they are awaiting public and private polling to decide whether to publicly push for Biden to consider leaving the race.

Independent polls both before and after the debate have showed that large majorities of the country do not believe that Biden is up to the job. A CBS-YouGov poll from last weekend found that 72 percent of voters said he does not have the mental and cognitive health to serve as president, up from 65 percent in June.

Biden’s advisers — and the president himself — say that while he may stumble verbally and walk stiffly, he is as sharp as ever mentally and fully capable of making nuanced, consequential decisions. They point to what they say is a clear record of legislative success and global leadership, and say Trump too often gets a pass for speeches that are increasingly incoherent.

But few Democrats would dispute that the electoral landscape is showing worrisome signs for Biden. A new post-debate poll in New Hampshire, a state that Biden won by seven percentage points in 2020, showed Trump ahead by two percentage points. The previous poll by the St. Anselm College Survey Center, in December, showed Biden up by 10 percentage points.

Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.), who has been floated as a possible candidate if Biden withdraws, said the debate marked “a very bad night for the president.”

“But he is still the candidate. Only he can make decisions about his future candidacy,” Beshear told reporters in Kentucky. “So as long as he continues to be in the race, I support him.”

Amy Gardner, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Dan Balz and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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