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President Biden aims to reassure supporters at post-debate rally in North Carolina

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, June. 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley)
Matt Kelley
President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, June. 28, 2024.

The day after a shaky debate performance against former President Donald Trump, incumbent Joe Biden leaned on the late rock star Tom Petty to send a clear message to his supporters. Biden left the stage in Raleigh to the tune of Petty's song, "I Won't Back Down."

It was a message meant as much for doubtful Democrats as for Trump, the GOP nominee he faces in a rematch of the 2020 presidential election.

Supporters who turned out Friday to see Biden at the state fairgrounds, in Raleigh, acknowledged the 46th president delivered a lackluster debate performance.

"Biden was weak," said David Tillem, 73, a retired attorney. But Tillem said Trump didn't fare that well in his eyes either, saying: "Trump gave us the normal litany of lies, lies, lies, and lies."

John Conover, 67, from Rocky Mount, also attended the Biden rally. Conover insisted Biden did a good job at the debate and also referred to false statements Trump made in their faceoff.

"He might have been overwhelmed a little bit because he was shocked by all the lies that were coming at him," Conover said about Biden's debate performance.

Among the lies Conover and other Biden supporters pointed to is the way Trump skirted the debate moderator's question about whether he would accept the outcome of the 2024 election, and the way Trump continued to make false claims about the 2020 contest he lost.

"If it's a fair and legal and good election, absolutely," Trump said during the debate. "I would have much rather accepted these but the fraud and everything else was ridiculous and if you want we'll have a news conference on it in a week."

But at the debate on Thursday night, Biden struggled to make clear points in his attacks on Trump and battled a hoarse voice.

"We had an economy that was in free fall," Biden said about the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during the Trump presidency. "The pandemic was so badly handled, many people were dying, all he said was 'It's not that serious, just inject a little bleach into your arm, you'll be alright.'" Biden added: "The economy collapsed."

Supporters cheer before President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally, Friday, June 28, 2024, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci
Supporters cheer before President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally, Friday, June 28, 2024, in Raleigh, N.C.

At his rally on Friday, though, Biden had more energy as he promised to protect women's reproductive rights.

"And I made it clear again last night that if you elect me and Kamala and give us a Democratic Congress we will make Roe v. Wade the law of the land again," Biden said to cheers from the crowd.

And Biden confronted the 81-year-old elephant in the room: his age and public doubts about his fitness for the presidency.

"I'm not a young man, to state the obvious," Biden said to laughs that gave way to a raucous chant of "Let's go, Joe."

Among the supporters cheering Biden on was Tayah Butler, a committed Democrat and campaign volunteer.

"What's important to me is that Donald Trump does not get elected," Butler said. She acknowledged the doubts and concerns Biden's debate performance raised.

"It wasn't the big windfall we were hoping for," she said. "It doesn't matter, what we need to now is stay committed and stay together."

But committed Democratic voters like Butler are not the key to Biden flipping North Carolina, according to professor Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina University.

North Carolina hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Barack Obama in 2008. Cooper said Biden needs some of the state's unaffiliated voters and needs to lose by smaller margins in North Carolina's red rural counties.

Moreover, Cooper added, Biden needs to mobilize unenthusiastic Democrats. "It's also about getting Democratic voters off the couch and to the polls," Cooper said — something that will be harder to do after his subpar debate on Thursday.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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