Pennsylvania Democrats are panicking over Biden’s debate performance

Thirty minutes into Thursday night’s debate, some Democrats in Pennsylvania were already panicking over President Joe Biden’s debate performance against former President Donald Trump.

One Democratic consultant received a text message from an agent asking what the rules would be for nominating Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro to replace Biden at the August convention in Chicago. (Biden would have to decline the nomination to expedite the highly theoretical process.)

A prominent Biden fundraiser called it “universal shock, surprise and disappointment.”

Others silenced the alarm by noting that debates are generally not game-changing.

“Chill out” Sen. John Fetterman, who had a destitute 2022 debate performance after suffering a stroke that led Democrats to question his ability to win or hold office. published in X. “I refuse to join the Democrat vultures in shouldering Biden after the debate. No one knows better than I do that a tough debate is not the sum of a person and his accomplishments.”

Shapiro, in turn, appeared on MSNBC and CNN on Friday morning to defend Biden.

“I’ll be the first to admit that things didn’t look good in that debate, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are glaring differences in this race,” he said on CNN.

Asked in an interview on CNN whether Biden was the best option for Democrats, Shapiro said: “Joe Biden won the primary vote and is our candidate.”

The election is still five months away, and while a CNN poll found that a majority of viewers believed Trump won the debate, 80% of viewers also told the network that the debate would have no impact on their votes in November.

Still, it’s a missed opportunity for Biden, who had hoped to move the needle in a race that has remained stationary. In Pennsylvania, where the race remained undecided, Biden lost several key parts of the constituency that elected him in 2020. He won by just over one percentage point in a state that was narrowly decided in the last two presidential election cycles. Even a tiny shift away from Biden could affect the outcome — and could hurt Pennsylvania Democrats running down the ballot, including Sen. Bob Casey.


Many Pennsylvania Democrats put their best foot forward Friday and repeated campaign talking points, urging people to focus on the substance rather than the speeches and noting that Trump’s lies and policies are far more risky. But others worried whether Biden would be up to the rigors of a high-stakes campaign and a second term.

“Disastrous and very sad” is how longtime Democratic ad creator Neil Oxman described Biden’s performance.

Oxman wasn’t surprised when the party establishment defended the president. But he wonders whether there will be cracks in the ranks in a week or two, when the next battleground state polls come out.

“Although he clearly wasn’t feeling well, it’s premature until a chest X-ray is done,” Oxman said. “The poll numbers may not have changed one bit.”

“I tell friends and other donors to take a deep breath,” said Alan Kessler, organizer of the Biden fundraiser. “Let’s let things develop. It’s not like the other guy stood out last night. Let’s wait 10 days… let’s see what the polls tell us at this point and decide where we go from there. Meanwhile, having such discussions is not the worst idea for people who want to have discussions.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) acknowledged that he “didn’t sound like his normal self,” but said Biden, even at his worst, “would be 1,000 times better for the future of this nation” than another Trump presidency.

Several other prominent fundraisers, party activists and Democratic lawmakers told The Inquirer they were concerned, and one senior Democratic state official advocated for Shapiro to become the party’s nominee. “We’re all fans of Joe Biden. But the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate,” the lawmaker said.

Another elected Democrat from Philadelphia, who requested anonymity to speak freely, questioned Biden’s team for even including him in the debate. “He should never have been on stage.”

Opposition by Casey and Bidenworld

Several Democrats also worried about the impact the debate could have on Casey, a close Biden ally who is running for re-election in November.

Casey, who is often an outspoken surrogate for Biden, did not speak in the debate as of noon Friday. His GOP opponent, Dave McCormick, was quick to exploit Biden’s debate performance to highlight Casey’s closeness to the president.

“Just a few months ago, Bob Casey said there was ‘no doubt about it.’ [Biden] “He is prepared to do this job today and would be ready if re-elected,” McCormick’s campaign sent out a news release.

Asked for comment on the debate, Casey’s campaign responded with a statement criticizing McCormick but making no mention of Biden or the debate.

Ahead of the debate, the Biden campaign had planned an “accountability” event outside the state Capitol on Friday morning, but it was canceled shortly before it was scheduled to begin. A campaign spokesman said it was canceled because of a conflict with the House session.

The mood in Biden’s campaign was one of disappointment, but not fatalism. One staffer said his biggest fear was that Trump would come across as measured and normal, which he didn’t. Trump lied throughout the debate, and his failure to answer questions about whether he condemned the Jan. 6, 2021, attack or would accept the election results was bad timing for him. The back and forth about his golf skills also struck a staffer as bad timing for Trump. “It was so weird and it just showed you’re old, too.”

And Biden pressed on Friday. At a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, Biden much more energetic and eloquentUsing a prompter, he told the crowd that he intended to win the election and sharply criticized Trump’s speech.

“I know I’m not a young man. I don’t walk as lightly as I used to. I don’t speak as fluently as I used to… I don’t argue as well as I used to. But I know what I know. I know how to tell the truth. I know what is good and what is bad. I know how to do this job.”

Sean Coit, a Pennsylvania Democratic consultant who is not working with either presidential campaign, said there will be “a lot of discussion among Democrats about how meaningful a debate is.”

He predicted that the impact would also depend on how people consumed it. Did they experience it in its entirety live, or just see selected fragments?

Meanwhile, Trump supporters in Pennsylvania celebrated his more restrained debate performance.

“President Trump has been energetic and focused on two issues: an open border and comparing his dual records on the economy and wars around the world,” said GOP consultant Guy Ciarrocchi. “And he’s been disciplined — especially by 2020 standards.”

“Not very expressive”

Voters who gathered to watch the debates also seemed to agree that it was a difficult night for the president. At a Biden campaign watch party in Harrisburg on Thursday, the crowd groaned when Biden failed to provide an early answer and began to thin out about an hour into the 90-minute debate.

Several supporters expressed concerns that Biden’s verbal gaffes and some of his incoherent sentences — as he stutters — would be mistaken for cognitive decline.

“Regardless of Biden’s individual performance, he really knows what’s going on and can get the job done, unlike his opponent,” said Antonio Megna, 28, of Mechanicsburg.

Meanwhile, the mood at the Black Sheep Pub, where the Philadelphia Young Republicans gathered for a watch party, was jubilant as attendees laughed, clapped for Trump and mocked Biden.

“Biden was what I thought he was, which was a senile old man,” said Paul Sutton, 35, of Manayunk.

Matt Lamorgese, 31, of Rittenhouse Square, said Biden stuck too closely to his well-rehearsed arguments. “I don’t think he had the ability to change direction,” Lamorgese said. “And I think you saw that in his rebuttals.”

Writer Anna Orso contributed to this report.

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