Biden tries to recover from debate with high-stakes TV interview

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden held a rally in Wisconsin on Friday before taping his first televised interview since his disastrous performance at last week’s debate, a turn of events that could be crucial in determining whether he can salvage his embattled candidacy.

The interview with ABC News host George Stephanopoulos is shaping up to be one of the riskiest moments for a president or candidate in years. Democratic elected officials, donors and voters will be watching closely to see whether he can still perform in a hostile environment and deliver a performance worthy of being the party’s nominee to defeat Donald Trump this fall.

In a clip from the interview on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” Biden took responsibility for his performance during the debate, saying it was “nobody’s fault but mine.”

The interview will air “in its entirety as a primetime special” at 8 p.m. ET on Friday, ABC said, adding that a “transcript of the unedited interview will be made available the same day.”

Before the interview began, Biden spoke at a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin, where he told an enthusiastic crowd: “I’m staying in the race.”

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and others also spoke at the event.

The White House said the ABC News interview team “will be with us in Wisconsin all day” and will be able to cover the meeting and observe the president as he fits his schedule, and said it has “some flexibility” around the length of the call but “no exact estimate” of how long it will take.

The big questions on the minds of many Democrats are: Were the weakness and incoherence he displayed during the debate anomalies, or have they become a normal occurrence for Biden? Can he still run a strong campaign with a reasonable chance of beating Trump? And if not, would Democrats be better off if Biden were to step aside for a replacement candidate — likely Vice President Kamala Harris — who is nominated at next month’s convention?

“Every appearance he makes between now and the convention is critical to Democratic support for him to continue as our nominee,” said one Democratic lawmaker in Congress who has privately expressed skepticism that Biden can stay in the race. “He needs to show that he can do the full range of events that are necessary for an active, successful campaign.”

Democrats have reason to be nervous. Even before the debate, polls showed Biden as an underdog in the race against Trump, albeit a narrow one, with questions about age and fitness following him throughout the campaign, including among his own Democratic base. Post-debate polls have been a mixed bag, with some showing Biden’s support slipping, but within the margin of error, while others showed a statistically significant drop in Trump’s lawsuits.

While some Democrats are calling for him to drop out of the race, Biden has remained publicly defiant. At a Fourth of July celebration at the White House, he told a guest who shouted a note of support, “I’m not going anywhere.”

On Wednesday, he stepped up his efforts to reassure nervous Democrats, meeting with congressional leaders, governors and holding a general meeting with campaign staff in which he vowed to stay in the race.

“Nobody is pushing me out,” Biden told aides, according to a campaign aide on the call. “I’m not leaving. I’m in this race to the end, and we’re going to win.”

But privately, Biden remains divided between accepting that he may have to step aside and resisting those calls, sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.

Other Democrats say Biden’s interview on Friday will be less important than what polls predict in the coming days — in the Biden-versus-Trump race for the White House, nationally and in swing states — and that it will send signals about whether his candidacy will hurt Democrats’ hopes of winning seats in the House and Senate in a highly competitive battle for control of both chambers.

If Biden’s position weakens to the point that staying in office would cost Democrats the House, that would be a red line, said a House Democrat representing a competitive district.

Allies say it’s crucial that Biden do more interviews, town halls and events in unscripted settings. Since the debate, he’s delivered multiple speeches at rallies and fundraisers and at the White House — usually via teleprompter in a controlled setting.

Biden has acknowledged in the past week that he has regressed when it comes to his communications skills, but he says he is still in charge when it comes to fulfilling his role as president — and argues that Trump is too dishonest and dangerous to hold power. At 81, Biden is only three years older than Trump, 78, whose lies, tirades and descent into grievances during the debate in Atlanta were overshadowed by Biden’s inability to provide coherent answers.

Trump attacked Stephanopoulos on social media on Thursday, calling him the “meanest, most vitriolic interviewer.” He also called for “another debate” with Biden, but without moderators — “this time, without restrictions — a discussion from beginning to end, with just the two of us on stage, to talk about the future of our country.”

Biden’s appearance on ABC may be the most important interview for a presidential candidate since 1992, when Bill and Hillary Clinton expressed solidarity in an interview after Gennifer Flowers admitted to a 12-year extramarital affair with Bill Clinton.

The man who set up that interview? Stephanopoulos, who was then Clinton campaign communications director.

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