Democratic convention delegates say they’re loyal to Biden and balk at other options

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Democrats urging President Joe Biden to end his campaign and allow the party to select another nominee before – or during – August’s national convention are unlikely to find allies in the ranks of Chicago-bound delegates, who are increasingly closing ranks around Biden.

Ten days after the president’s debate debacle, following an initial surge of Democratic anxiety and calls for him to stand down, a host of party leaders and rank-and-file members selected to formally nominate Biden said they were loath to consider any other option.

For many of the more than two dozen delegates interviewed by CNN over the last 48 hours, the debate remains a sore subject. Though a few sought to cast Biden’s performance as an untimely aberration, most argued that, despite the angst they and so many others felt watching the president struggle, the tumult that’s followed is a distraction from the party’s unifying aim: To defeat former President Donald Trump in November and crush the most ambitious plans of his right-wing loyalists.

Their concerns over the prospect of Biden bowing out are twofold. A host of pledged delegates warned that the process for replacing the president – should he relinquish the nomination and release his delegates – would do more damage than even the worst-case scenario with Biden atop the ticket. Most, though, refused to even consider the hypothetical – a mark of both their belief in the president and, going back months, the Biden campaign’s work to screen for loyal delegates.

Biden-aligned delegates also expressed, often privately, a lack of confidence in the alternatives, arguing that Biden, for all the agita following the debate, remains a better bet than any of the names whipping around the gossip circuit. To the extent they were willing to countenance a succession plan, there was overwhelming support for Vice President Kamala Harris, who – both as a logistical and political matter – would in their views likely encounter the fewest roadblocks.

For the most part, though, Biden’s most ardent delegates were singing from the same hymn sheet.

Chris Anderson, chair of the delegate selection process in Tennessee and a local government official, argued – as Biden’s campaign has done – that voters aren’t as interested in the president’s debate performance as the political media.

“The punditry class has a job to do, and I understand that, but they seem to think the debate was a bigger deal than regular people think it was because most regular people were focused on the 90 minutes of lies spewed by Donald Trump,” Anderson said.

Stephen Gaskill, the former president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, told CNN he had no plans to look any further into his responsibilities as a delegate. Like so many others, he acknowledged that Biden flopped on the debate stage in Atlanta, but said he was not entertaining the idea of a candidate swap.

“There is no plan B. The president is the nominee,” Gaskill said. “And that’s where I and everyone that I’ve been talking to stands – until and unless he says otherwise. And I don’t think that’s likely.”

Colorado state Rep. Meg Froelich said she found the post-debate narrative “frustrating” given the stark differences between Biden and Trump, who was convicted of 34 felony counts earlier this year in New York and faces three other criminal indictments.

“This whole idea that someone’s going to ride in on a white horse and unify everyone, and we’re all going to get excited … Biden is our nominee,” said Froelich, who also praised Harris. “I don’t have a problem supporting him.”

In Massachusetts, Democratic strategist Joe Caiazzo — who helped organize a write-in campaign for Biden in New Hampshire because he wasn’t on the primary ballot after a calendar dispute — said he was exasperated by the relentless focus on Biden’s missteps.

“The debate performance obviously could have been better, significantly better,” Caiazzo said. “And I think that it was clear that the narrative coming out of the debate would be more about Joe Biden’s performance than what Donald Trump actually said.”

He also questioned the motives of some of the voices calling for Biden to quit.

“There are people in the party who are looking for a reason to sideline Biden from the beginning,” Caiazzo said, “which was clear through my work on the write-in effort.”

Delegates willing to go public with their calls for Biden to drop out have typically been less closely tied to the campaign and Democratic Party infrastructure. Rishi Kumar, a Biden delegate from California and former Saratoga City councilmember, said he began researching Democratic National Committee rules for replacing a candidate a year ago.

“The process is probably as clear as mud right now,” Kumar said. “The DNC committee will have to come up with a plan, whether Biden drops out before or at the convention or even after.”

The debate was an “eye opener,” he said, and Biden’s interview with ABC News broadcast on Friday didn’t help. Kumar, who ran for retiring Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo’s Silicon Valley House seat but did not advance out of the primary, said he was worried down-ballot Democrats would be political “roadkill” if Biden didn’t exit the race.

“With so many vulnerable Democrats who are running in the House and Senate, those seats might be up for grabs if Biden becomes the roadblock,” said Kumar, who told CNN that he would back California Gov. Gavin Newsom for the presidential nomination if the opportunity arose.

Biden and his campaign began a blitz of personal outreach after the initial shock of the debate subsided, trying to lock down support with party leaders – including governors and members of Congress – whose decisions could pave the way for others to register their concerns. They have also hammered a public message that a faceless blob of Democratic “elites” is trying to step over the will of primary voters.

“I’m getting so frustrated by the elites,” a combative Biden said during a call-in to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “They know so much more. But if any of these guys don’t think I should run – run against me. Good. Announce — announce for president. Challenge me at the convention.”

So far, six Democratic House members have publicly asked Biden to stand down. A handful – most in senior positions – said the same during a weekend call with the party’s House leadership, according to sources briefed on the discussion. That number could grow on Tuesday, when House lawmakers hold their first caucus meeting with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries since the debate.

Though one member told CNN the dam could break soon after that gathering, most Democratic elected officials, activists and delegates have, so far, been careful not to be seen speaking out of school. There is also a concerted – if decentralized – push to downplay anxiety over Biden as typical liberal “bedwetting,” as the campaign itself described it in a fundraising email after the debate.

Organizers on the ground chafed at that language, which the campaign has mostly backed off from, and pointed to it as evidence that Biden and his top aides are disconnected from the situation on the ground.

“I think (the calls for Biden to quit) are a function of people who understand the stakes, as Joe Biden himself put it, which is that democracy is on the line and we can’t go upward to go into this fight with one or two hands tied behind our back, which is what we’ll have to do if Joe Biden’s the nominee,” said one Democratic strategist who works closely with a network of grassroots groups around the country.

Kevin Tolbert, a first-time delegate and district chair for the Michigan Democratic Party, described the debate as road bump in Biden’s path to reelection – an opinion he’s shared with doubters.

“The message I’ve been saying to people is this is not the time for us to be caught into our feelings. This is not about who we love or an emotional response,” Tolbert said. “This is the time for us to be very cerebral and very intelligent and make sure we educate people over what’s occurring.”

Alan Geraci, a California-based delegate for Biden who is still supportive of him, said the president’s debate performance was “abysmal” and he shouldn’t have taken the stage that night if he was sick or exhausted, as the White House has suggested he was. In the aftermath of that performance, Geraci said he was “disappointed” the Biden campaign wasn’t more aggressive with his public appearances.

“They had that next-day North Carolina campaign event that went well, but then it kind of languished for a week,” said Geraci, who is also running for the San Marcos City Council. “I thought that was a huge mistake, that Biden needed to be out there and convincing people that he’s ready for the task, and that the debate indeed was a one-off.”

Like many delegates, Geraci has been following the president’s public appearances in the days after the debate. Biden’s interview with ABC was “better than the debate,” he said, but not a home run. Geraci was more pleased with positive responses Biden received after a Sunday appearance at a Black church in Philadelphia.

“I felt very confident that that’s what he needs to do every single day,” he said.

Geraci also pointed to the 1944 election, when ailing Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned aggressively to overcome public questions about his health, as further evidence that “the most effective defense is a good, strong offense.” Roosevelt died five months after the election, which he won in a landslide.

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a DNC member and close ally of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential runs, dismissed any suggestion that delegates were poised – or inclined – to launch a “rogue takeover.”

“That’s not going to happen. The only way the convention is truly going be open is if Biden says, ‘I’m not gonna run and I release my delegates,’” Turner said. “Unless something spectacularly more daunting than what we saw on that debate stage happens, it’s totally in his hands.”

Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, a vocal Biden backer in a House Democratic conference that has shown signs of fracturing, said she had not heard much about the potential for an open convention from her constituents. If a fellow delegate asked for her take, Stevens said, she would point to the scoreboard.

“If I was talking to a delegate in Michigan’s 11th District, in the heart of Oakland County, I would say that 87% of our district voted for Joe Biden, like overwhelmingly,” she told CNN.

But Stevens also warned Democrats – in and outside of Washington – to choose their words carefully, with a thought for the party’s ability to come together in the fall, as the discourse around Biden heats up.

“This is kind of like disagreeing with your spouse or a family member,” Stevens said. “You really gotta watch what you say in these moments.”

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