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President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump.
Gerald Herbert/AP

The Debate Went Just as Democrats Feared

“It’s a shame this debate didn’t happen during a Democratic primary. Then we could’ve avoided nominating Biden at all,” one senior aide to a swing-seat Democrat told NOTUS.

Gerald Herbert/AP

President Joe Biden came to Atlanta to underscore the binary choice before voters, prove that he has the vigor and capacity for another term and show why he’s the preferable candidate to Donald Trump.

Biden ended the night with new questions about whether he’ll even be the nominee.

Democrats feared that Biden would look more languid than lucid, that a poor performance would overshadow whatever Trump said. Their worst fears were confirmed.

“It’s a shame this debate didn’t happen during a Democratic primary. Then we could’ve avoided nominating Biden at all,” one senior aide to a swing-seat Democrat told NOTUS.

Biden tripped over his attacks. He slurred his words. And his rhetorical punches never seemed to land. Trump, meanwhile, was himself: He made a sport of lying. He defended his actions on Jan. 6, deflected his felony convictions to Hunter Biden and repeatedly returned the conversation to attacking immigrants.

But that all seemed to be baked into the collective expectations with Trump as the GOP nominee. What was shocking was Biden’s performance.

The president misspoke several times from the jump. He said his administration had created 15,000 new jobs instead of 15 million. He said he lowered insulin prices to “$15 a shot” instead of $35 a month. He said there were “a thousand trillionaires in this country” before correcting himself that it was actually a thousand billionaires.

At one point, Biden just sort of trailed off mid-thought while making his case about taxes. At another point, as Biden made a confusing argument about the Border Patrol and asylum seekers, Trump parried the president’s attacks — and offered a brutal takedown — in two sentences.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump said. “I don’t think he knows either.”

“Yes, it was a slow start,” Vice President Kamala Harris said on CNN about an hour after the debate ended. “But it was a strong finish.”

That didn’t appear to be a common sentiment.

Biden’s performance particularly struck fear into vulnerable Democrats up for election this year. Many have been trying to run away from Biden and his record, while Republicans have been trying desperately to tie them to the president. This debate will help — or won’t help, depending on your perspective.

Trump was his normal blustery self. He said he oversaw the greatest economy in U.S. history. (That’s far from the truth.) Trump said Biden is allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to come in from “prisons, jails and mental institutions.” (PolitiFact has rated that claim as a “Pants on Fire” lie.) And Trump claimed Democratic policies allow for the killing of babies “after birth.” (Another claim PolitiFact has rated as “False.”)

But it was Democrats who were immediately preparing a difficult spin job, acknowledging the debate produced some brutal moments.

“For all the hype about Biden on the Juice, it is looking more and more like Trump had taken some Prozac. The beginning was, obviously, not great, but Biden seems to have found some footing by the middle of the debate on key issues,” a Democratic operative told NOTUS around the time of the first commercial break. “We’ll see how closing goes. This debate could end up just confirming people’s priors about each candidate.”

Quentin James, president of Collective PAC — which has been advising the Biden campaign on messaging to voters of color — chalked up Biden’s performance to having practiced too much.

“I’m very surprised to see Biden’s voice in the shape that it’s in,” he texted NOTUS. “Compared to the State of the Union and on the campaign trail, I’m wondering if they did too much debate prep. There’s very little range. Him being hoarse is hurting his performance.”

The Biden campaign set high expectations for the debate. A couple of hours before the debate started, the campaign touted record fundraising activity for this cycle. A couple of minutes before the debate, the Biden campaign even posted an image of the president posing with a can of branded water meant as satire of baseless Trump campaign claims that he took performance-enhancers before major public events.

But just minutes later, Democratic operatives were aghast that Biden’s staff let him on the stage, wondering once again if he could be replaced. The vision of State of the Union Biden humiliating Trump on a debate stage evaporated into complaints that Trump was, once again, getting away with it.

“Trump is not playing by the rules. He is saying whatever he wants,” Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, who was opposed to Biden even debating Trump at all, texted NOTUS. “We also have to remember that it’s not just about the President. It is also about his cabinet and advisors. And however this debate goes down, I KNOW that Biden cares enough about the institution to continue to keep a solid team; unlike Trump who has said he will pick cronies and thieves.”

Republicans on the other hand quickly claimed victory, while some expressed shock at just how bad Biden was on the stage.

“This isn’t a fair fight, one man is ready to be president, the other is ready to be carried to the retirement home,” Rep. Max Miller — a former Trump aide — told NOTUS. “I can’t believe they actually put him out there like that. Our enemies are salivating. We need President Trump back now.”

At points, the debate was spirited. Biden called Trump a “sucker and a loser,” a call back to reporting that Trump canceled a visit to a veterans’ cemetery in 2018 because he thought those who died in war were suckers and losers. Trump bizarrely called Biden a “Palestinian.”

“But they don’t like him because he’s a very bad Palestinian,” Trump said.

Biden also went after Trump for being a “convicted felon.” That prompted Trump to call out Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, for also being a convicted felon. “Gonna be convicted probably numerous other times,” Trump added.

In perhaps Biden’s harshest attack of the night, the president went after Trump for “having sex with a porn star.”

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden said to Trump.

Trump characteristically denied the attack, saying he “never had sex with a porn star,” despite being convicted in his hush money trial for falsifying business records to pay off Stormy Daniels. Trump then turned Biden’s attack into a commentary on the political system.

Throughout the debate, Trump made his points — and lied — while hardly ever being effectively challenged by Biden or the moderators.

Amazingly, one of the most coherent back-and-forths between Trump and Biden was over a shared love: golf.

“I just won two club championships, not even senior — two regular club championships,” Trump said. “To do that, you have to be quite smart, and you have to be able to hit the ball a long way.”

Trump then claimed Biden couldn’t hit a golf ball 50 yards, claiming “the biggest lie” was that Biden was a 6 handicap.

“I’m happy to play golf if you carry your own bag,” Biden shot back.

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Reese Gorman are NOTUS reporters. Tinashe Chingarande and Ben T.N. Mause are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.