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Biden is trying to calm nervous Democrats. That won’t happen immediately.

More than half a century ago, a controversial Democratic president made a surprise decision not to run for re-election. It was the month of March, the year was 1968, and the president was Lyndon B. Johnson.

The battle for Johnson’s successor led to discord and violence. The Democratic Party convention in Chicago brought tumult in the congressional hall and bloody clashes between the police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators on the streets. The party nominated Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, but the Democrats left Chicago divided and demoralized. The result was the election of Republican Richard M. Nixon.

No one is suggesting that those events will repeat themselves this summer. But that extraordinary period in 1968 is a reminder that this week’s talks about replacing President Biden as the Democratic nominee have no easy solution and many potential unintended consequences.

Fear of the authoritarian potential of a second Trump presidency is worrying Democrats, many independents and even some Republicans. The goal of defeating former President Donald Trump unites Democrats, but after Biden’s difficulties in Thursday’s debate, they are divided over how best to prevent Trump from becoming president again.

Democrats’ despair is understandable. Biden failed to achieve what he set out to do on Thursday. Rather than allaying concerns about his main weaknesses – his age and his mental and physical fitness – he raised new doubts about his ability to serve another term. The only question for Democrats is what to do next.

The president’s team has moved quickly to quell rumors of replacing him with another candidate, announcing early Friday that he would not voluntarily drop out of the race. Flash polls showed Trump as the overwhelming winner of the debate, but Biden’s allies claimed that some focus groups reached a more nuanced conclusion. Yes, participants felt Biden had some terrible moments, but Trump also left some viewers frustrated. Members of the team are quietly monitoring key party leaders for signs of unrest.

Biden’s personal contribution to the effort to calm his jittery party began with a fiery speech at a rally in North Carolina on Friday. The contrast between the animated Biden standing before a crowd of enthusiastic supporters in Raleigh and the halting and sometimes confused president who appeared on the debate stage in Atlanta could not have been greater.

“I know I’m not a young man anymore,” he said to applause of “Joe! Joe! Joe!” “Folks, I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t speak as fluently as I used to. I can’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. And I know, as millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Those were ready-made words. They were delivered with the force that the unprepared Biden so clearly lacked in the CNN-moderated debate. But if a debate doesn’t define a candidate, as Biden’s supporters said after Thursday’s argument, a rally can’t erase the impact of a debate performance that put Biden’s biggest vulnerability in the spotlight.

Tens of millions watched at least part of the debate in prime time, and only a tiny fraction watched the rally during the day. The rally was a way for Biden’s team to buy time as it tries to refocus the campaign and, behind the scenes, prevent talk of the need for a new candidate or a whole new Democratic slate from turning into concrete action.

Hours after Biden was in North Carolina, Trump campaigned in Virginia. His speech at the rally was an extended attack on Biden, an echo of the debate. If Democrats want to bring North Carolina, a state they haven’t won since 2008, into play, Trump and Republicans say, they can also bring Virginia, which has swung toward Democrats since 2008, into play. In a few weeks, it may be clearer whether and in which direction the electoral map is expanding.

Trump and his team were excited by the events in Atlanta. He was not the Trump of the first debate in 2020. He did not constantly interrupt Biden as he did four years ago, perhaps thanks to the rules that mute the microphones of candidates who did not speak. He had arguments that his team had prepared, and he delivered them with enough consistency to back up his arguments.

Still, Trump lied his way through the debate, giving fact-checkers a wealth of things to correct, a summary of highlights like no other. Biden tried to correct some of Trump’s misstatements, but was neither clear nor specific enough. A second debate is scheduled for Sept. 10, hosted by ABC, but no one is sure if Biden will get a second chance to prove Thursday was an aberration.

Biden was asked by reporters about his performance at Friday morning’s debate. “It’s hard to debate a liar,” he said. That raises the question of why he wasn’t better prepared. Anyone could have predicted that Trump would spend the evening saying things that aren’t true. If the president and his team had a strategy to counter Trump’s falsehoods, they clearly lacked execution.

More steps are needed to win Biden’s party back to his side. Friday’s work – the rally, the assurance that he would not resign, the talk of grassroots donations – was important but not enough. What is notable, however, is that despite calls from some prominent party strategists and pundits for a new candidate, there were no defections among party leaders.

So far, the Democratic establishment is holding steady, but leaders of the House and Senate must first remain true to the interests of their own members. Democrats in the House hope to wrest control back from Republicans. Democrats in the Senate are in a battle to maintain their slim majority, despite favoring Republicans.

In the coming weeks, nervous Democrats will be assessing Biden’s performance as a candidate while keeping an eye on the polls. Any further slip-ups by the president could be devastating. Equally worrisome could be a significant shift in the numbers in favor of Trump, who already has a narrow lead in swing states. Should Biden fall further behind, the alarm bells that went off on Thursday could grow louder. The campaign also has to worry about fundraising. There were signs of a setback before the debate, although the campaign raised heavily on debate day and afterward.

Biden must reassure not only party insiders but also concerned voters. It may take a lot more than a few rallies or more attacks on Trump as a threat to democracy to win over the voters Biden needs to prevent Trump from winning an Electoral College majority and returning to the Oval Office.

Theoretically, the delegates at the party convention in Chicago in August could replace Biden. They have the power. But such a move against Biden would be extraordinary, and those talking about replacing him have neither a strategy nor a candidate.

Biden could voluntarily resign, but what then? Would he say he wants Vice President Harris to run for president, or say the process should be opened up to others? Harris’s popular approval ratings are as weak as Biden’s, but she represents the Democratic Party’s most important voting bloc, black women, and everyone knows that black voters saved Biden’s candidacy in the 2020 primaries.

Harris will have more attention than ever, not only because she must be Biden’s most loyal advocate, but also because of her potential influence on the electorate. Sending her to cable networks for interviews immediately after the debate signaled the campaign’s belief that her voice and presence were needed to bolster the president and show solidarity.

Democrats have other capable younger leaders who could be in the race if they conclude that a candidate other than Harris is needed to win in November. They include California Governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Maryland Governor Wes Moore, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, Georgia Senator Raphael G. Warnock, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Colorado Governor Jared Polis, among others.

Party activists see them as credible and attractive, and likely contenders for the 2028 nomination. Would they be ready to launch a presidential campaign now? That is another question. They are little known at the national level and have no experience in presidential politics. They have not been tested, as is always the case with national politicians. Their teams are also untested in presidential politics.

A new candidate platform could enthuse voters who are dissatisfied with the choice between Trump and Biden. But any new Democratic addition carries significant risks. After Thursday’s debate, however, few Democrats are ruling out the risks of continuing Biden’s candidacy. That is the party’s dilemma four months before the election.

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