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Michigan Democrats react to Biden debate performance

President Joe Biden walking off stage at a commercial break during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/AP
President Joe Biden walking off stage at a commercial break during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Updated 4:19 p.m. July 1, 2024

Democrats in Michigan and other swing states are considering their options following President Joe Biden’s widely panned debate performance against former President Donald Trump Thursday night.

“We can’t fight Trump and fascism with a candidate who doesn’t present to America as a strong candidate. We need to consider a new candidate at the convention. There I said it,” posted former Michigan representative Steve Tobocman. The post on X was captured in a screenshot by Bridge Michigan journalist Jonathan Oosting.

Former President Barack Obama was among those who jumped to Biden’s defense on social media.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself,” Obama posted on X.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is often mentioned as a possible replacement nominee. She is a Biden national campaign co-chair who has urged Democrats to stick with the president as he has struggled in the polls and messaging.

She issued an eight-sentence statement of support Friday morning, but it made no mention of the fact that there even was a debate or anything about Biden’s performance.

“Joe Biden is running to serve the American people. Donald Trump is running to serve Donald Trump,” she said. “The difference between Joe Biden’s vision for making sure everyone in America has a fair shot and Donald Trump’s dangerous, self-serving plans will only get sharper as we head toward November.”

Whitmer on Monday insisted that President Biden can still win her state, a key battleground in the 2024 election, even as many national Democrats question whether Biden should move forward after his shaky debate performance.

Whitmer's statement comes as many in her party question whether she could step in for Biden and run against Republican Donald Trump this fall. Whitmer and several other top national Democrats have publicly backed Biden since Thursday's debate.

“I am proud to support Joe Biden as our nominee and I am behind him 100 percent in the fight to defeat Donald Trump," she said in her statement. “Not only do I believe Joe can win Michigan, I know he can because he’s got the receipts: he’s lowered health care costs, brought back manufacturing jobs, and is committed to restoring the reproductive freedom women lost under Donald Trump.”

The statement comes after Politico Magazine reported on Monday that Whitmer called Biden campaign chair Jen O'Malley Dillon on Friday. It cites “someone close to a potential 2028 Whitmer rival for the Democratic presidential nomination” who said Michigan's governor “had phoned O’Malley Dillon with more of an unambiguous SOS: to relay that Michigan, in the wake of the debate, was no longer winnable for Biden.”

An aide to Whitmer, Helen Hare, said that the reported comment was false.

Michigan State University political science professor Matt Grossman said it is not clear whether the debate will have a lasting impact on the election.

“In the past, debates move polls by about two points on average and that movement usually doesn’t last so we shouldn’t necessarily expect an earthquake,” Grossman said. “But we were already in an election that was close to 50-50.”

The Biden campaign started its recovery mission Friday with an energetic address in North Carolina. But Grossman said retail campaign appearances don’t match the audience and media reach of debates and convention speeches.

He said those also have an outsize impact because voters who don’t closely follow campaign coverage often rely on their impressions from those marquee events to make their decisions.

That means, Grossman said, debates are not just for pollical junkies.

“They also appeal to people who don’t like politics but think they can get a sense of the candidates that they wouldn’t normally get,” he said. “The trouble is that’s kind of exactly the vulnerability Joe Biden had last night.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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