Biden rallies boisterous crowd as he tries to tamp down debate concerns (2024)

RALEIGH, N.C. — President Biden had never been in a more desperate need of a campaign reset than when he stepped on the stage at a rally Friday in Raleigh. Only hours earlier, he had walked off another stage in Atlanta after a debate performance so concerning that it spurred questions from Democratic operatives and pundits about whether he should step aside.

But in North Carolina, the president briefly jogged toward the microphone with a grin and appreciative waves to his audience after rapper Fat Joe had fired up rally attendees by dedicating his song “All the Way Up” to Biden. Before he spoke, first lady Jill Biden — wearing a black dress covered with the word “Vote” in white lettering — tried to reframe Thursday’s debate as a standoff between her husband, who she said had “told the truth,” and former president Donald Trump, who told “lie after lie after lie.”

Biden spoke in a stronger, steadier voice than the faint, raspy tone that had unnerved even his allies during the debate. Aided by a teleprompter, he made a far more succinct case against Trump than he had Thursday night, when he sent ripples of panic through the Democratic Party with his uneven performance. And applause swelled in the Raleigh crowd that seemed intent on reassuring him when he acknowledged that he is no longer “a young man.”

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“I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to,” Biden said, his voice rising. “But … I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. I know how to do this job.”

“I know like millions of Americans know — when you get knocked down, you get back up,” Biden continued. “Folks, 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.”

“Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!” the crowd shouted in response.

It was a much-needed shift in energy on a day when the Biden campaign was doing its best to redirect the national conversation from the threat that Democrats might begin abandoning their candidate.

The trouble for Biden, however, was that more than 51 million Americans watched Thursday night’s debate and it may take more than one midday rally to erase their memories of his performance.

On Friday morning, top Biden campaign officials met with donors in Atlanta, seeking to tamp down anxieties rippling through Democratic circles and the donor community as concern set in about Biden’s ability to defeat Trump. In private, top Democrats worried about whether Biden could realistically stay in the race, as officials and donors engaged in conversations about options to replace him on the ticket.

Inside Biden’s inner circle, top aides were adamant the president will stay in the race and downplayed the debate performance. They argued that focus groups and internal polling showed Biden outperformed Trump among key voters. Biden, they maintain, remains the only option to defeat Trump, who they believe represents an existential threat to American democracy.

Biden’s aides announced that the campaign had raised $14 million on debate day and the morning after — casting that sum as “a sign of strength of our grassroots support,” with a spokeswoman noting that its single best hour of fundraising was after the debate. Chris Korge, the finance chair of the Biden Victory Fund, said in a text that “regardless of how people feel about the president’s performance at the debate” they know “how he’s performed as president” and that the backlash against Biden will “energize our donors to fight even harder.”

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Still, super-cuts of Biden’s performance — from his open-mouthed gaze to his muddled sentences — were ricocheting across social media. Democrats privately and publicly agonized over how Biden could recover.

Many of the introductory speakers in Raleigh didn’t mention Thursday night’s debate — focusing the audience on the fight ahead with Trump in North Carolina, a state that the former president won but where the Biden campaign believes it has a stronger hand this election cycle. And like Jill Biden, the Biden campaign signaled that it was moving forward — framing the debate as a confrontation between truth and lies that would illuminate the stakes of the election for the American people.

Picking up that theme, Biden told the Raleigh crowd that Trump set a “new record for the most lies told in a single debate.”

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He noted that Trump had once again showed pride in the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that had guaranteed abortion rights in America. He called out Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts in New York for falsifying business records. And he continued to cast Trump as a threat to democracy, noting he had repeatedly refused to say he would accept the results of the November election.

“We’re going to preserve, protect and defend our democracy,” he said. “That is what is at stake in America this election — your freedom, your democracy. America itself is at stake.”

Biden later spoke at the opening of the visitor center at the Stonewall National Monument, which commemorates the 1969 uprising that helped spark the gay rights movement after New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn. Biden called out political figures in the crowd including New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — bringing them on stage for a hug — before he introduced musician Elton John.

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Biden said that the bar became “the site of call to cry for freedom, dignity, equality and respect” and that the 1969 riot “marked a turning point in civil rights in America and inspired the hearts of millions of people around the world.”

Tying that moment to his campaign, Biden reprised his argument that the country is engaged in “a battle for the soul of America.”

“But I look around at the pride, hope and light that all of you — all of you — bring,” Biden said. “I know that it’s a battle we’re going to win and continue to make progress. LGBTQ+ people are some of the most inspiring people I know.”

At a fundraiser on Friday evening in Manhattan, Biden was met with a standing ovation.

“Folks, I would not be running again if I did not believe with all of my heart and soul that I can do this job because quite frankly, the stakes are too high. Donald Trump is a genuine threat to this nation,” Biden said at an event that included other LGBTQ+ stars such as Billy Porter and Alan Cumming.

Earlier, in North Carolina, several rally attendees brushed off the critiques of his debate performance.

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“He was probably tired,” said Kathy Bolger, 74, of Zebulon, N.C. “His voice was hoarse. It was to be expected, but I think he held his own.” Bolger said she thought Biden often tried to answer multiple questions at once and would get tripped up. Still, Bolger said she remained an ardent Biden supporter and will vote for him again.

Ross Dragon, 50, a Raleigh resident who works for the state of North Carolina, said he watched only part of the debate, but he allowed that Biden could have performed better.

“It’s a battle in the war, and you shouldn’t make decisions off one battle,” he said.

Dragon, who said he supported Biden in 2020, said he plans to vote for him and has no concerns about his age: “If you look at his policies, the things that he’s passed, you can’t argue against that — so you have to make something up,” he said. “If age is an issue, then Trump shouldn’t be on the stage either.”

Biden rallies boisterous crowd as he tries to tamp down debate concerns (2024)

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