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Biden rejects age questions in an interview to save his re-election

By COLLEEN LONG and SEUNG MIN KIM – Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — President Joe Biden, battling his imperiled re-election, used a highly anticipated television interview Friday to repeatedly reject an independent medical examination that would show voters he is ready for another term, while attributing his disastrous debate performance to a “bad incident” and saying there was “no indication of a serious condition.”

“Look, I have to take a cognitive test every day,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, referring to the tasks he has to complete on a daily basis in his demanding job. “Every day I have to take this test. Everything I do. You know, I’m not just campaigning, I’m running the world.”

Biden, 81, got through the 22-minute interview without any major blunders that would further damage his endangered candidacy. But it seemed unlikely that this would completely allay concerns about his age and fitness for another four years and his ability to defeat Donald Trump in November.

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Biden found himself in a stalemate with a significant faction of his party four months before Election Day and just weeks before the Democratic National Convention. The drawn-out spectacle could benefit Biden’s efforts to stay in the race by limiting the party’s options to replace him. But it could also distract from important efforts to portray the 2024 election as a referendum on Trump.

During the interview, Biden stressed that he is no more frail than he was at the beginning of his presidency. He said he is “continuously being checked” by his personal doctors and they “don’t hesitate to tell me” if something is wrong.

“Can I run the 100 in 10 seconds? No. But I’m still in good shape,” Biden said.

As for the debate, “I didn’t listen to my instincts in preparing,” Biden said.

Biden said Trump’s interruptions – from just a few feet away – had thrown him off balance: “I realized that even when I was answering a question and they turned off his microphone, he was still yelling, and I let that distract me. I don’t blame him. But I realized that I just wasn’t in control.”

Biden spoke into the void at times during the interview, which ABC said was broadcast in full and without edits. At one point he began to explain his performance at the debate, then he talked about a New York Times poll, then pivoted to the lies Trump spread during the debate. Biden also talked about how the “red wave” in the midterm elections would not come until 2020, not 2022.

Asked how he could still turn the race around, Biden said a key to doing so would be large, high-energy rallies like the one he held in Wisconsin on Friday. When reminded that Trump regularly draws larger crowds, the president launched a sharp attack on his opponent.

“Trump is a pathological liar,” Biden said, accusing Trump of botching the federal government’s response to the COVID pandemic and failing to create jobs. “Have you ever seen anything Trump did that benefited someone else and not himself?”

The interview, coupled with a weekend campaign in the battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, was part of Biden’s rigorous effort to correct course after his rocky debate performance. But frustrations within the party continue to simmer: An influential Democratic senator is working on an initiative to get the president to drop out of the race, and Democrats are quietly chatting about what they would do next if the president drops out — or what it would mean if he stays in the race.

“It’s President Biden’s decision whether he stays in the race or not. The voters are choosing our candidate and they elected him,” said California Rep. Ro Khanna, a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, which serves as a gathering of his key surrogates. “Now he has to prove to those voters that he’s up to the job, and that’s going to take more than just this one interview.”

A Democrat who observed the event said Biden was still uncertain even under controlled conditions and predicted that more votes would call for him to drop out of the race.

Still, Biden was eager in Wisconsin to prove his ability to serve another term. Asked if he would suspend his campaign, he told reporters he was “completely ruling it out” and was “positive” he could stay in office for another four years. At a rally before hundreds of supporters, he acknowledged his underperformance in the debate but insisted, “I’m running, and I’m going to win again.”

While private angst has been high among Democratic lawmakers, donors and strategists since the debate, most in the party are holding back on public criticism, waiting to see if the president can restore trust with his weekend trip and his manner of conducting the interview. Top Biden campaign officials sent text messages to lawmakers urging them not to comment publicly and to give the president a chance to respond, according to a Democrat who was granted anonymity to discuss the situation.

To that end, Sen. Mark Warner has been reaching out to his fellow senators this week to discuss whether to urge Biden to drop out of the race, according to three people familiar with the effort who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. The Virginia Democrat’s moves are notable because he is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is seen as a lawmaker who supports Biden and works with colleagues from both parties. Warner’s efforts were first reported by The Washington Post.

The strategy is still up in the air. One of the people familiar with Warner’s efforts said there are enough Democrats in the Senate concerned about Biden’s ability to run for reelection to take action, although there is no consensus yet on what that plan would look like. Some of the Democratic senators could meet as early as Monday to discuss how to proceed.

Top Democrats on House committees plan to meet virtually on Sunday to discuss the situation, according to a person familiar with the meeting who was granted anonymity to comment.

At least four Democrats in the House of Representatives have called for Biden to withdraw as a candidate. Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey stopped short of going that far, but said in a carefully worded statement on Friday that Biden must now make a decision about “the best path forward.”

“I urge him to listen to the American people and carefully consider whether he remains our best hope of defeating Donald Trump,” Healey said.

In the interview, Biden was asked how he could be persuaded to drop out of the race. He laughed and replied, “If the Lord Almighty came down and told me to, I could do that.”

There were also some signs of discontent at Biden’s campaign rally on Friday. One person on stage waved a sign that read “Pass the torch, Joe” as the president came out. His motorcade was also greeted at the middle school by some people who urged him to move on.

But Rebecca Green, a 52-year-old environmental scientist from Madison, found Biden’s energy reassuring. “We were just waiting for him to come out strong and combative again, like we know him to be.”

Many Democratic lawmakers hearing from their constituents at home during the holiday week are deeply frustrated and divided over whether Biden should stay or go. Unofficially, debates flared among House Democrats this week as word spread that some of them were writing public letters urging the president to drop out of the race.

Biden seems to have drawn his family closer to him while trying to prove that he is still the best option for the Democrats.

Hunter Biden’s ubiquitous presence in the West Wing since the debate has become an uncomfortable dynamic for many aides, say two Democrats close to the White House who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

For many of our staff, the sight of Hunter Biden taking on a larger role in advising his father just weeks after his conviction on a gun charge was disturbing and a questionable decision, they said.

At a hastily convened meeting with more than 20 Democratic governors on Wednesday evening, Biden acknowledged that he needs to get more sleep and limit evening events so he can be rested for his job. To explain these comments, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that Biden works “around the clock” but he “also recognizes the importance of finding balance and taking care of yourself.”

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who attended the meeting, said Biden “certainly talked to us about complicated issues.”

“But on the other hand, this is something where he not only has to reassure the Democratic governors, but he has to reassure the American people,” Beshear said.

Kim reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Todd Richmond in Madison, Joey Cappelletti in Saugatuck, Mich., Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., and Will Weissert, Zeke Miller, Mary Clare Jalonick, Aamer Madhani, Lisa Mascaro and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.

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