MADISON, Wis. — Abbey Handel harbors concerns about President Joe Biden’s age and stamina — “just like everybody does,” she said. But that didn’t stop her from arriving nearly three hours early to a Madison-area middle school on Friday to welcome Biden, and show him that he “is still our candidate.”

“We need to stop fighting each other and start supporting our candidate,” Handel, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. “That was why we lost in 2016. We can’t let that happen again.”

This weekend, Biden will try to convince Democratic voters that Handel is right. His three-day swing through battleground states — starting Friday in Wisconsin — is crucial for the Biden campaign, which is trying to quell a growing chorus of concern from Democrats after Biden’s poor showing in last week’s debate. Today, Biden will lead a rally in Madison and sit for an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos; on Sunday, Biden heads to Pennsylvania for an undisclosed event. (His planned speech at an education conference in Philadelphia was canceled after the employees of a teachers’ union went on strike.)

The president seems to understand the importance of this weekend’s appearances: if he appears strong and coherent, it could be enough to assuage some of his allies’ concerns; if he stumbles, the calls for him to drop out will increase.

CNN reported this week that Biden is “clear eyed” about the stakes, and The New York Times reported that Biden thinks his campaign may not be salvageable unless he delivers strong performances on Friday and Sunday.

“He knows if he has two more events like (the debate), we’re in a different place” by the end of the weekend, a key Biden ally told the Times.

Friday’s rally in Madison is Biden’s fifth visit to Wisconsin — a swing state — this year, and it comes just over a week before the Republican National Convention kicks off in Milwaukee.

For a venue, the president’s campaign selected a small middle school gymnasium, placing attendees in chairs or bleachers around a raised lectern. Two hours before the president was scheduled to speak, a line snaked out the door and across the school’s playground; an hour before, the indoor space reached capacity, with attendees shoulder-to-shoulder on the bleachers and the floor seats — reserved for ADA accessible participants — nearly full. Many of the attendees sported Biden shirts, hats and pins, and sporadic chants of “four more years!” and “let’s go Joe!” broke out.

Supporters cheer before President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis., Friday, July 5, 2024. | Morry Gash

But the president’s detractors arrived, too. A half-dozen demonstrators gathered on a street corner near the school, waving Palestinian flags and wearing keffiyeh. Sara, one of the group’s organizers, said they “do not feel President Biden is welcome in Madison due to the trajectory of his administration” on Gaza. (Sara declined to share her last name.)

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If Biden were to step down and be replaced by another Democrat, the group said they still cannot commit to supporting the nominee. “The person doesn’t matter,” Sara said. “It’s the policy and action that do.”

Biden has faced criticism from the progressive flank of his policy over his Israel policy since last October. But the growing sentiment that Biden may be unfit for office due to his age and stamina has grown exponentially over the past week. After the debate, three Democratic House members publicly called on Biden to drop out. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi questioned whether Biden’s performance “is an episode or this is a condition.” And series of high-profile business leaders and donors, including Netflix founder Reed Hastings and ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, have called on Biden to pass the torch.

This week, Biden’s team has largely kept him out of the public eye. His infrequent forays into the spotlight did little to increase confidence. On a pair of radio interviews Thursday, Biden fumbled over his words, saying at one point he was proud to have been “the first Black woman to serve with a Black president.” In a closed-door meeting with Democrat governors on Wednesday, intended to reassure them of his capacity to lead the country, Biden emphasized that he needs more sleep and shorter workdays, one person familiar with what took place at the meeting told The New York Times.

Avoiding those gaffes — and convincing voters that they are episodes, not conditions — are the tall task of Biden’s rally in Wisconsin today.

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