Biden hits campaign trail in key state in bid to allay Democratic jitters

US president has drawn support from key Democrats who previously questioned his ability to defeat Trump, but campaign is preparing for series of calls within party for him to quit

US President Joe Biden attends a church service at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7, 2024. (AP Photo/ Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US President Joe Biden attends a church service at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7, 2024. (AP Photo/ Manuel Balce Ceneta)

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (AP) — US President Joe Biden attended a Black church and was rallying with union members on Sunday in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, trying to project enough strength for his reelection campaign to quell a growing clamor from within his own party for him to bow out of the race.

The appearances followed Biden joining a Saturday call with campaign surrogates and reiterated that he has no plans to step aside while urging unity among top Democrats. But he also listened to concerns and feedback, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The president pledged on the call to campaign harder going forward and to hit the road more frequently, taking his message to voters more directly. He got the chance at a church service at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in northwest Philadelphia, where Biden entered the gold-chandeliered sanctuary to applause and a cry of “Let him know we are with him!” which drew a “Hallelujah!”

Early in the service, Pastor Louis Felton asked churchgoers to lock arms before declaring, “There is no election we cannot win.”

“There is no enemy we cannot defeat,” Felton said. “We are together because we love our president.”

The president was later heading to Harrisburg to speak at an organizing event with union members and local Democrats. On Sunday evening, he was to return to Washington, where leaders from NATO countries will gather for a three-day summit beginning Tuesday to mark the military alliance’s 75th anniversary.

US President Joe Biden, left, is greeted by Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, right, and her son Langston Mullins, center, as Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, looks on, at Philadelphia International Airport, July 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The focus could shift more to Russia’s war in Ukraine than questions about Biden’s reelection campaign, but the 81-year-old Biden’s political situation remains precarious. Five Democratic lawmakers have called on him to abandon his reelection bid ahead of November, and more could do so in the coming days, as Congress reconvenes.

Meeting in person will give congressional Democrats a chance to discuss concerns about Biden’s ability to withstand the remaining four months of the campaign — not to mention four more years in the White House — and true prospects of beating former Republican president Donald Trump.

Biden’s campaign team is quietly bracing for the chorus of those calling for him to leave the race to grow in coming days — holding the call with surrogates and calling and texting lawmakers to try and head off more potential defections. The president also got a weekend boost from other key Democrats who had raised questions previously, but now have moved to support him, led by speaker emerita Nancy Pelosi and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina.

With the Democratic convention fast approaching, the short term is especially critical.

Since his disastrous debate performance late last month, donors, strategists, lawmakers, and their constituents have urged Democrats to replace him at the top of the ticket before, they argue, it is too late. Biden’s Friday interview with ABC did not convince some who remain skeptical that he can maintain his campaign.

Biden has insisted that he is not yielding to any other potential Democratic presidential candidate, arguing that he is still the party’s best shot to beat Trump. Visiting a Black church gives him a chance to energize African-American voters, who are Democrats’ largest and most loyal bloc of support. It could also send a message to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose endorsement the president will need, as he works to quell potential rebellion on Capitol Hill.

At the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans on Saturday, Biden got enthusiastic support from four of the caucus members, including Rep. Joyce Beatty, an Ohio Democrat, who told attendees, “Don’t get out there and turn your back on this president.”

California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, who is 85, drew a standing ovation by declaring, “People say Joe Biden’s too old. Hell, I’m older than Biden!”

“It ain’t gonna be no other Democratic candidate,” Waters said “and we better know it.”

Others are not fully convinced.

Bishop Ernest C. Morris, Sr., from right, US President Joe Biden, pastor Dr. J. Louis Felton and Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, from left, and Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker attend a church service at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, in Philadelphia, July 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told CNN that Biden “needs to answer those questions that voters have,” but added, “If he does that this week, I think he will be in a very good position and we can get back to what this campaign needs to be.”

During his Friday interview, Biden rejected undergoing independent cognitive testing, arguing that the everyday rigors of the presidency were proof enough of his mental acuity. But California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff told NBC on Sunday that he would be “happy if both the president and Donald Trump took a cognitive test.”

Schiff added that the president opting to stay in the race “is going to come down to what Joe Biden thinks is best” and that he could “run hard” to beat Trump or “if his decision is to pass the torch, then the president should do everything in his power to make that other candidate successful.”

Schiff warned that Biden needs to consider how he risks dragging Democrats down the ticket: “Look, there are concerns with the impact on down-ballot races if the president doesn’t do well.”

“You can only run so far ahead of the president,” he said.

As some Democrats have done, Schiff also seized on Biden implying during the ABC interview that losing to Trump would be acceptable, “as long as I give it my all.”

“This is not just about whether he gave it the best college try,” Schiff said, “but rather whether he made the right decision to run or to pass the torch.”

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