MADISON, Wis. — President Joe Biden wasted little time before addressing the near-existential threat facing his campaign. Within two minutes of beginning his speech at a Friday rally, he cracked a joke about his age. (“I’m 40,” he quipped.) Two minutes later, he took a shot at former President Donald Trump, sarcastically labeling him a “stable genius” for his infamous Washington-took-the-airports gaffe. And two minutes beyond that, he did his best to shutter any doubts about whether he’d be ending his campaign.

“Let me say this as clear as I can: I’m staying in this race,” he said, to raucous applause from a friendly audience.

Biden acknowledged the calls for his exit. He noted that last week’s debate, where he often appeared lost or incognizant, was “not my best performance.” But throughout his speech, which he delivered with the help of teleprompters, he was emphatic that he would not relinquish his place atop the Democratic ticket. “I’m not letting one 90-minute debate wipe out 3½ years of work,” he said.

The Wisconsin voters in attendance cheered along. The venue was small — a middle school gym — and the crowd was no larger than 400 people, dotted with campaign volunteers, local officeholders, union members and Biden loyalists. Even as a majority of U.S. voters — and a plurality of Democrats — want to see Biden replaced on the Democrat ticket, many of the voters Friday were adamant they want to see Biden stay in.

“I liked what I saw,” said Jeff Martinson, who attended with his wife, Susan. “I stood 70 feet away from him. He’s strong. He’s lively and spirited.”

Martinson acknowledged that he “had some reservations about (Biden’s) capabilities” after the debate. But after today’s speech, Martinson said he is “back in (Biden’s) corner.”

“He stood up. He won me back,” Martinson said. “He convinced me that he can be a winner.”

The sentiment was repeated by a dozen other attendees at Biden’s speech. Some of them said they were seriously concerned by Biden’s debate performance. Others said they were confident in the president’s capacities all along. All agreed, however, on one thing: they are more confident in Biden’s ability to win the election now than they were a week ago.

Susan Wilhelm, a local labor union leader, pointed to the crowd’s reactions to Biden’s speech as evidence of how it was received. “I loved it,” she said. “He really fired the people up.”

Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, agreed. “President Biden was unequivocal that he’s going to win this,” he said. “You could tell that from the explosive response.”

President Joe Biden takes a photo with supporters after speaking at a campaign rally at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis., Friday, July 5, 2024. "I’m staying in this race," a defiant President Joe Biden declared in Wisconsin as he works to repair image. | Morry Gash

Is Biden up to the task?

Warning signs of Biden’s stamina and age were still present. When Biden took the stage, a man behind the lectern — among several dozen attendees who stood on risers and held signs — lifted a handwritten poster that said, “Pass the torch, Joe.”

Biden’s speech was not error-free; at one point, when he attempted to deliver an emphatic line about defeating Trump “again in 2024,” he accidentally said 2020, before correcting himself. At times, his voice was slurred and rushed.

“You can tell he gets excited, because he gets into run-on sentences, and words start to slur together,” said Daniel Guerra, a lifelong resident of Madison. “I don’t hold that against him. I just see a lot of excitement there.”

The Wisconsin rally, along with a Friday interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and a Sunday visit to Philadelphia, are viewed as a critical juncture in Biden’s campaign, in which he can try to put to rest voters’ concerns about his competency. But a single fiery speech, aided by teleprompters, will likely fall short of fully quelling some Democrats’ concerns that Biden is not fit for governing and incapable of defeating Trump in November. And the ABC interview — which will be prerecorded and edited before being broadcast — has raised concerns, even among Biden allies.

“It’s important that the President also have an extended LIVE interview as soon as possible,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said on social media. “Democratic Primary voters have one overarching sentiment: We need a candidate who will beat Donald Trump.”


A persistent, and perhaps growing, portion of Democrats are convinced that Biden is not that candidate. Midway through Biden’s speech, The Washington Post reported that Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is attempting to rally his fellow Senate Democrats to ask Biden to exit the race.

Inside the gymnasium Friday, the crowd seemed completely insulated from any of those concerns. Biden was impassioned and defiant; the audience, which cheered along, seemed to view any concern of his fitness as folly. Samba Balde, a Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, was among them — and he says the key to convincing the critics is getting Biden in front of more crowds.

“You have to continue doing what he just did today, and what he did the day after the debate,” Balde said. “Go to the American people and talk to them about what his vision is for the United States.”

But several million more Americans saw a hobbled Biden on the debate stage than saw him on a Wisconsin stage Friday. Teleprompter-aided speeches to friendly audiences may be enough to boost the morale of his loyalists. Whether it will win back enough of the skeptics — including those who lost faith over the past week — remains to be seen.

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis., Friday, July 5, 2024. "I’m staying in this race," a defiant President Joe Biden declared in Wisconsin as he works to repair image. | Morry Gash
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