On Thursday night, following the earliest general election debate in presidential history, President Joe Biden’s halting and disjointed debate performance caused a wave of panic among Democrats,  reigniting discussions about whether he should be replaced on the ticket, just two months before his expected formal nomination.

Over the 90-minute debate, the 81-year-old Biden struggled, often mumbling and appearing on the defensive. In contrast, the 78-year-old former President Donald Trump seemed to coast through confidently, avoiding the overbearing demeanor that had hurt him during their first debate in 2020.

While Trump occasionally rambled and made convoluted, hard-to-follow or outright false statements, his energy and volume masked these missteps. He remained on the offensive, even when addressing vulnerable issues such as the Jan. 6 riots and abortion.

Biden aimed to use the early general election debate to frame the election as a choice between himself and a felon who tried to overturn an election, potentially undermining American democracy. Instead, his performance raised doubts about his ability to run a competitive and victorious campaign, with his age becoming a central concern among Democrats.

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Within minutes of the start of the debate, Democrats who had defended Biden for months, including members of his administration, began discussing whether it was too late to find a new presidential nominee, as it quickly became clear that Biden was not presenting himself as the sharpest.

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), told MSNBC, “Joe Biden had one thing he had to accomplish, and that was to reassure America that he was up for the job at his age, and he failed at that tonight.”

Speaking with reporters after the debate, Biden mentioned he had been battling a cold. When asked about Democrats’ concerns over his performance and calls for him to withdraw from the race, he responded, “No. It’s hard to debate a liar.”

Biden’s advisers have consistently dismissed any speculation about him dropping out. They accepted the early debate to emphasize that these are the two presidential choices and no one else will be nominated to replace him.

No incumbent president has ever dropped out this late in the campaign cycle. While there is speculation about Vice President Kamala Harris or California Gov. Gavin Newsom succeeding Biden, it remains uncertain if any party figure could effectively rise to the challenge.

With no other debate scheduled until Sept. 10, Biden’s campaign faces the challenge of having no immediate opportunity to recover, making it harder for his team to mitigate the damage and rally the party behind him.

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