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The lap of honor began before the debate was over.

Donald Trump’s advisers had prepared for him to face the fiery President Biden, who appeared at the State of the Union address earlier this year. Instead, the former president faced a shaky opponent whose gaffes sent Democrats into a frenzy – and Trump largely refrained from interrupting to let the issue unfold, just as allies and advisers had urged.

Trump later gave a thumbs up as he left the stage and walked into a lounge full of advisers who believed they had a new – and devastating – supply of ammunition against Biden.

During a campaign rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, Trump boasted about his performance in the debate and mocked Biden.

“We won a great victory against a man who really wants to destroy our country,” the former president said. “He got the debate rules he wanted. He got the date he wanted. He got the network he wanted, with the (moderators). … No amount of rest or reading could help him defend his atrocious record.”

Republicans are ecstatic, viewing the debate as a turning point in a race where Trump’s team was already optimistic. When some Democrats raised the possibility of replacing Biden on the ballot, Trump aides and allies exulted, saying it was too late. “IT’S SO JOE-VER,” cheered one campaign email as Trump prepared for his first post-debate rally Friday afternoon in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 points four years ago but where some polls now show a closer race.

At the rally, Trump also commented on possible alternatives to Biden and expressed his thoughts on Vice President Harris and California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), whom he called “one of the worst governors.”

“A lot of people are saying after last night’s performance that Joe Biden is dropping out of the race. But the fact is, I don’t really believe that because he’s doing better in the polls than any of the Democrats they’re talking about,” he said.

Trump said Biden’s choice of Harris as his vice president was his “best decision … because nobody wants that.”

Trump had another reason to celebrate on Friday morning: The Supreme Court ruled that federal prosecutors had wrongly charged hundreds of defendants with obstruction of justice in connection with the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The decision disrupts many criminal cases dating back to a violent day that Biden has made the focus of his impeachment of Trump. The former president praised the decision at the rally, saying they “should be released immediately.”

Biden’s allies, however, argued that Trump did himself no favors with his answers during the debate, as he dodged questions about accepting the election results and refused to condemn the Jan. 6 riots. A CNN snap poll found that registered voters who watched the debate believed Trump won by a wide margin, but 81 percent also said it did not affect their voting decision. Five percent said the debate changed their minds, while another 14 percent said they changed their minds but were ultimately not convinced who they wanted to vote for.

A Biden representative, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal numbers, said the hour after the debate – from 11 p.m. to midnight – was the best hour for fundraising since the campaign launched last April, and the campaign raised $14 million on the day of the debate and the morning after.

But Republicans were thrilled. While Democrats debated how to proceed, Trump’s allies brushed aside the potential threat posed by a younger Democratic candidate.

“Whether it’s Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmer, it doesn’t matter,” said Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, who was on site as Trump’s deputy. “The agenda remains the same.”

A Biden adviser said Biden would “absolutely not” drop out, saying he had often been considered out of the running and had proved his doubters wrong.

North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum, one of the few top candidates for Trump’s vice presidential nomination, said the debate would give new impetus to a campaign that was already “on track for success.”

“I think you’re going to see an influx of donations. You’re going to see President Trump go full steam ahead,” Burgum said.

Biden has spent months raising significantly more money than Trump and using those funds to significantly increase his presence in swing states. But Trump’s conviction on May 30 changed the picture: It fired up the Republican base and allowed Trump and the Republican National Committee to report more cash in their latest financial reports than Biden and the Democratic National Committee.

Democrats hope their initial spending on the ground will still be hard to beat. But Republicans suddenly have more funds to invest — and now a debate performance that has fulfilled their highest hopes.

“The debate was an incredible study in the contrasts between a man who has the energy to be president and a man who clearly does not,” said Senator JD Vance (Republican of Ohio), another leading contender for Trump’s vice presidential nomination.

Several potential vice presidential candidates attended a fundraising debate on Thursday hosted by RNC Chairman Michael Whatley and former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia), then watched the debate on a volleyball court on the Georgia Tech campus. Attendees included Burgum, Vance and Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Tim Scott (R-Carolina), Lindsey Graham (R-Carolina), Eric Schmitt (R-Missouri), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), according to a person familiar with the event who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak about it. Lara Trump, the RNC co-chair and Trump’s daughter-in-law, was also in attendance.

Harris defended Biden after the debate, but acknowledged that he had gotten off to a “slow start.” Biden “represents a very clear contrast to Donald Trump on all the issues that matter to the American people,” she said on CNN.

Trump’s advisers had attacked CNN as biased in the run-up to the debate and said they were satisfied with the way the broadcaster had conducted the event.

While some Democrats attacked CNN for failing to verify Trump’s false claims in real time, Chris LaCivita, a top Trump adviser, said he believed “CNN seized the moment” and that the Trump campaign’s decision to accept the terms of CNN and the Biden campaign “worked very well.”

At his rally on Friday, Trump delivered a rare compliment to CNN, saying the network “treated him very fairly last night,” but added, “They’ve abused me for years.”

Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, joined Trump on Friday at his rally in Chesapeake, a city Biden won four years ago by about six percentage points.

The Cook Political Report, which provides nonpartisan election analysis, estimates that Virginia is likely to vote Democratic in the presidential race. But Trump has struck an optimistic tone toward both Virginia and Democratic-leaning Minnesota. A recent Trump team memo said the campaign and national party are “in the process of finalizing leases” for 11 “primary” offices in Virginia and eight in Minnesota and will have “built a series of tailored audiences for voter outreach in both states” by the end of the month.

The Democrats dismiss the Trump team’s moves as boastfulness. “If Trump wants to spend his time and money campaigning in the Democratic states, then go ahead,” said Biden’s campaign spokeswoman Caroline Stonecipher.

But they also say they didn’t take the state for granted from the start. Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said in an interview Thursday that five new offices for the Democratic coordinated campaign had just opened in the state, bringing the total to 11. She said she couldn’t remember a presidential campaign being resourced as early as the Biden campaign.

Some recent polls have shown Trump and Biden neck and neck in Virginia. Dave Wasserman, senior editor and elections analyst for the Cook Political Report, noted that polling on the state is sparse. Based on the state’s results in 2020 and a nationwide shift in votes since then, it would make sense for Biden to have a small lead in Virginia, he said.

Right now, he added, “everyone wants to go on the offensive and convey an offensive posture” by moving into challenging territory, even if other states are much more likely to decide the race. “If Virginia is competitive this fall, the election is already decided in Trump’s favor,” Wasserman said.

Arnsdorf and Levine reported from Atlanta. Josh Dawsey and Nicole Markus in Washington contributed to this report.

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