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U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at a post-debate campaign rally on June 28, 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Allison Joyce/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at a post-debate campaign rally on June 28, 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Going into Thursday night’s CNN presidential debate, President Joe Biden had one critical job – to reassure his voter base and demonstrate his capability of leading the country for four more years.

But within seconds of the debate starting, Biden began faltering. Throughout the event, Biden’s voice was weak and raspy. According to his team, it was due to a cold.

He was also hard to follow at times. In response to a question on abortion, a key issue for democrats, Biden said,

“I support Roe v. Wade, which had three trimesters. The first time is between a woman and a doctor. Second time is between a doctor and an extreme situation. A third time is between the doctor, I mean, between the women and the state.”

Biden’s debate performance played into his biggest vulnerability –- and many Democrat’s biggest fear — that at 81 years old, he isn’t fit to be president.

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Compared to his opponent.

Meanwhile, Trump continued to fuel conspiratorial grievances and spread falsehoods throughout the debate.

He claimed abortion advocates wanted to “rip babies from the womb,” and repeated past unfounded rhetoric about undocumented migrants committing high rates of violent crime.

Biden’s performance has worried many Democratic leaders. Some are even expressing their worries out loud. This is what former Missouri Senator and Biden surrogate Claire McCaskill and ad to say on MSNBC afterwards:

“My job now is to be really honest. Joe Biden had one thing he had to do tonight and he didn’t do it. He had one thing he had to accomplish. And that was reassure America that he was up to the job at his age, and he failed at that tonight.”

What Democrats do next

NPR’s senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith joined Consider This host Scott Detrow to discuss what direction the Biden campaign and Democrats at large will decide to go in after the debate.

Keith attended a rally for Biden today in Raleigh, North Carolina where 2,000 supporters came out to see the presidential candidate. She says the Biden on stage at this rally was a stark contrast from the one the world saw last night.

“It was everything that Biden’s debate performance was not. It’s like when someone insults you and then hours later, you think of all the comebacks you should have said earlier.”

Keith says Biden hit Trump on policy and personality, calling him a convicted felon.

Biden also talked about what he plans to do to make voters’ lives better if he gets a second term.

“He talked about abortion rights and democracy much more clearly than he did last night. And he slammed Trump for trying to rewrite history of what happened on January 6th, for failing to answer when pressed repeatedly on whether he would accept the results of the 2024 election.”

But Keith acknowledges that there’s only so much a rally can do in comparison to the performance that millions of people watched last night. And while many are questioning whether Biden is the best option for the election, his team is staunch on keeping him in the running.

“They are putting their heads down and pushing forward. I asked a campaign official directly whether Biden should step aside, and his response was ‘absolutely not’.” Keith said.

“The Biden campaign has always acknowledged that Joe Biden is old, sometimes more defensively than others. He’s 81 years old. Every day he gets older. That is something they can’t change. And yes, they say Biden did not have a great debate performance, but that doesn’t change who he is and it doesn’t change who his opponent is. That’s the message they’re settling on.”

This episode was produced by Brianna Scott and Megan Lim. It was edited by Jeanette Woods, Kelsey Snell, Dana Farrington and Adam Raney.

Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.