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Leading Democrats Vouch for Biden, but Concede a ‘Bad Night’

USLeading Democrats Vouch for Biden, but Concede a ‘Bad Night’

Democratic Party leaders swiftly and unequivocally ruled out the idea that President Biden would or should step aside after his shaky performance at the first presidential debate. But there was a palpable sense of anxiety on Capitol Hill on Friday morning about what it would mean for his campaign and their own re-election chances.

“We have a great team of people that will help govern,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California and an official Biden surrogate responsible for reaching out to young voters. “That is what I’m going to continue to make the case for.”

When asked if he could vouch for the president, Mr. Khanna only said, “I can vouch for our policies.”

Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and a former House speaker, acknowledged that “from a performance standpoint, it wasn’t great.” But, she added, “from a values standpoint, it far outshone the other guy.” Ms. Pelosi, a longtime booster of Mr. Biden’s candidacy, said that she did not think Mr. Biden should step aside as the party’s presidential nominee and that she did not know of anyone pushing him to do so.

“I’m not doing it, and I don’t know anyone who’s doing it,” she said.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and the House minority leader, also said that he did not think Mr. Biden should step aside, despite the increased concerns about his age and his ability to do the job.

Still, Democrats said they were concerned, not only about the White House but also about their prospects of winning back control of the House of Representatives and keeping control of the Senate. On Friday morning, many Democrats were speed-walking into the House chamber to avoid questions from reporters.

Representative Jasmine Crockett, the Texas Democrat who worked the spin room in Atlanta after the debate, refused to answer questions from reporters in the Capitol, while Representative Adriano Espaillat, Democrat of New York, offered a terse “no comment” when asked about his reaction to Mr. Biden’s debate performance.

Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and a key Biden ally who helped him secure the nomination in 2020, swiftly jogged into the chamber; later, when cornered, Mr. Clyburn told reporters: “That was Strike 1. You always get three strikes.” He said that he planned to connect with the president later in the day, and that his message to Mr. Biden would be, “Stay the course.”

Republicans, who had suggested that Mr. Biden would take performance-enhancing drugs before the debate, switched to a posture of sadness for the state of the country under a visibly aged leader. On the other hand, many Democrats tried to change the focus to Mr. Trump’s geyser of lies and venality.

“I am looking forward to a conversation about Donald Trump,” Representative Veronica Escobar, Democrat of Texas, said. “When he talks about countries emptying out their asylums and their prisons and he’s describing immigrants that way, that is beyond vile.”

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Mr. Trump “wants to destroy our democracy and be a dictator on Day 1, and we’re all focusing on whether Biden had a cold.”

And Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said that his own disastrous debate performance during his 2020 Senate campaign, when he was still in the early stages of recovery after a life-threatening stroke and struggled to talk coherently, made him empathetic and optimistic about Mr. Biden’s ability to overcome one bad night.

“Just the way everyone was so quickly to panic and pile on, my heart really went out,” he said in an interview. “A rough debate is not the sum total of the kind of person you are, the kind of candidate you are and the record that you have.”

Still, some pressed the White House to do more to address the president’s inability to communicate a clear re-election message. Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said that was “a huge problem” that Biden officials needed to address.

Mr. Biden, 81, trailed Mr. Trump, 78, in many swing state polls going into the debate, and Democrats had been bullish about a chance to show Mr. Biden as something other than the frail and diminished caricature that Republicans have tried to paint. On Friday, some were still simply in shock.

“I’m still processing what happened last night,” said Representative Angie Craig, Democrat of Minnesota. “It was a terrible debate, we all have to acknowledge that.”

Catie Edmondson and Jennifer Medina contributed reporting.

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