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In a post-debate rally, Biden showcases a different side

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

We'll start this hour following the presidential candidates as they stepped away from their lecterns at Thursday night's debate and hit the campaign trail. Joe Biden traveled to North Carolina, while Donald Trump headed to Virginia, both potentially pivotal states this year. NPR's Stephen Fowler watched both events and joins us now from Raleigh, N.C. Stephen, thanks for being with us.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, Stephen, Democrats were concerned - alarmed, even - by Biden's poor performance at the debate on Thursday, and that started a lot of talk about replacing him on the ticket. How did he show up at the rally that you saw?

FOWLER: I mean, Danielle, it was almost like the debate and debate Biden didn't exist. This was a high-energy, big crowd of about 2,000 people, and Biden hammered Trump on abortion, the future of democracy and all of these other topics that didn't show up in the debate. Biden acknowledged he didn't fully show up then either.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't walk as easy as I used to. I don't speak as smoothly as I used to. I don't debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth.

FOWLER: I mean, this was Joe Biden that Joe Biden supporters knew, and it's a total disconnect from the current D.C. discourse about Biden, especially after talking with voters.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, what did those voters have to say? Were they as shocked as some of those top Democrats in D.C. and pundits?

FOWLER: I mean, no, they weren't shocked at Biden's performance. Every voter I talked to said they'd basically crawl over broken glass to support him. They didn't really like his debate performance, but they also weren't expecting a lot from him there. Here's 25-year-old Kendrick Green (ph). He's a recent law school graduate who said rallies like this are important to Biden gaining more support.

KENDRICK GREEN: I think he was good on the issues last night, but I think he was a little slow on his feet, which is like him. You know, he's not normally, you know, the attack person, but I definitely think that he definitely rebounded great, and I was impressed today.

FOWLER: There's also Rob Cushman (ph), who said Biden was probably too old to debate somebody like Trump, who doesn't tell the truth at times.

ROB CUSHMAN: He's not his most nimble as - conversationally, but I can tell his heart's in the right place and he has my issues in mind. And the things he's done to bring this country forward are amazing.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so they support Biden. The acknowledge has some weaknesses. Now, how much did Biden go on the offensive against Trump?

FOWLER: Quite a bit. I mean, because think of it this way, Danielle - support for Joe Biden has also been explicitly about opposing Trump and his vision for the future, which the president constantly reminds people in his remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: That is what is at stake in America this election.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

BIDEN: Your freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

BIDEN: Your democracy.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

BIDEN: America itself is at stake.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, Biden wants to put the attention on Trump in some ways. So what argument is Trump making post-debate?

FOWLER: Pretty much the same argument that he made during the debate and makes all the time at his campaign rallies - America has gone to hell under Joe Biden because of things like immigration and inflation and other policies. Interestingly, there's not as much emphasis on Biden's age or mental fitness as you might think. Some of that is because Trump is also old. He also rambles and stumbles over his words, but also because a key part of Trump's narrative is that Biden is this mastermind of all of these policies that make America not great.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: But remember, the biggest problem for our country is not Joe Biden's personal decline. It's that Joe Biden's policies are causing America's decline at a level that we've never seen before.

KURTZLEBEN: OK, but back to Biden. If Democrats fears about his performance are true, can he make up the ground he lost at the debate by doing these rallies?

FOWLER: Well, Danielle, I'd argue that it's not really evident yet that Biden lost any ground, at least not among voters and groups that will actually matter come November. The people obsessively reading the opinion section of The New York Times, telling Biden to step aside or watching an eight-person cable news panel hypothesizing replacements or doom scrolling social media - those aren't the ones who need to be convinced to vote for Biden.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

FOWLER: For example, there's these people out there called double haters who don't like Trump or Biden, and they're deciding more if they vote at all in this rematch of 2020, because it's a rematch, so the undecided factor is not, oh, who's this Trump guy? Who's this Biden guy? Polls right now show these voters, which cut across the wide coalition that elected Biden the first time - younger voters, nonwhite voters - they could be the ones that make or break who wins in states like North Carolina that'll be close. So that's who they have to reach in the next four months.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Stephen Fowler in Raleigh, N.C. Thank you so much, Stephen.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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