Democrats Roll Out a Post-Debate Playbook to Help Biden Recover

Top Democrats scrambled on Sunday to defend President Biden and dismiss concerns about his candidacy that surfaced after he struggled to answer policy questions in Thursday’s debate and failed to make an aggressive case against former President Donald J. Trump.

The surge of surrogates followed a concerted effort by Mr. Biden and his team over the weekend to reassure anxious donors, party leaders and supporters who have raised questions about whether he should continue his candidacy.

“Listen, if they weren’t engaged in a little bit of hand-wringing, they wouldn’t be Democrats,” Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia, said on NBC News.

In interviews on several TV networks, Mr. Warnock and other Democrats offered versions of the same argument: that Mr. Biden should be judged not on his performance in a 90-minute debate but on his record as president over the past three and a half years, and that voters should give more weight to Mr. Trump’s numerous false statements in the debate and to his continued indications that he would not accept an election loss.

“I think that the president had a difficult night, just like every single one of us do,” Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland said on CBS News, adding, “Joe Biden is not going to take himself out of this race, nor should he.”

Mr. Warnock and Mr. Moore were among a string of high-profile Democrats who spoke out in a bid to bolster Mr. Biden’s position within the party, including Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the former House speaker; and Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Fetterman, in an interview on Fox News, pointed to his own shaky debate performance in 2022 after having a stroke — and also to his subsequent win. “Everybody was calling that, that was the end of my career,” he said, criticizing members of his party for “wetting the bed.”

Mr. Clyburn and Ms. Pelosi, strong and longtime Biden supporters who appeared on CNN, focused less on Mr. Biden’s performance and more on his record as president.

“I do not believe that Joe Biden has a problem leading for the next four years because he’s done a great job of leading for the last three and a half years,” Mr. Clyburn said. He also condemned Mr. Trump’s reference during the debate to “Black jobs,” which he described as an implication that “there are certain jobs for Black people and there are certain jobs for white people.”

Ms. Pelosi urged against making “a judgment about a presidency on one debate.” She also said that she expected voters to care more about abortion rights, the economy and climate change, and added, “The reaction to the lies of Donald Trump is something that maybe TV isn’t focusing on, but people are.”

One of the few Democrats who was open about the concerns was Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland. “There are very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party,” Mr. Raskin said on MSNBC, arguing that this was a good thing, standing in contrast with “the nonexistent dialogue and conversation that took place in the Republican Party after Donald Trump’s criminal conviction.”

Republicans on Sunday stayed on offense by attacking Mr. Biden’s debate performance and questioning his fitness for office, while also defending Mr. Trump’s claims on the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, a contender to be Mr. Trump’s running mate who appeared on NBC News, pushed back against the Democrats’ defense of Mr. Biden’s cognitive abilities, saying: “All of America saw it. And you know who else saw it? Our adversaries saw it. Putin saw it, Xi saw it, the ayatollah saw it.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a onetime Trump critic turned enthusiastic supporter, made the same case against Mr. Biden, with whom he served in the Senate.

“He is compromised,” Mr. Graham said on CNN. “That’s the story line here. That’s what the world saw — a compromised president.”

At the same time, Republicans struggled at points to defend Mr. Trump’s own debate performance, in which he spoke more clearly than Mr. Biden but made many false claims and indicated that he might refuse to accept the election results if he loses again, as he did in 2020.

Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, another candidate to be Mr. Trump’s running mate, accused journalists of not fact-checking Mr. Biden. “There was this 24-hour period where effectively everyone was honest that there was an incredible contrast between Donald Trump’s energy and command of the facts and Joe Biden’s obvious inability to do the job as president,” he said on CBS News. “And now, of course, we’ve transitioned to this new media cycle where folks are trying to run cover.”

Mr. Burgum inaccurately compared Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election to the efforts of past Democrats who pursued only legal challenges and conceded their losses. “Donald Trump, at the end of his term on Jan. 20, left the White House,” he said on NBC. “We had a smooth transition.”

When the host, Kristen Welker, pointed out that Trump supporters’ storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to try to stop the certification of the election “wasn’t exactly a smooth transition,” Mr. Burgum said, “Well, I think we have to say that there was a smooth transition.”

Mr. Graham, on CNN, said Mr. Trump was right not to commit to accepting the results.

“What are you supposed to say?” Mr. Graham asked. “‘Yeah, I’ll accept it no matter if I thought I was cheated?’”

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