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Here's what happened in last night's debate and why everyone is talking about MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

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President Joe Biden strained to quell Democratic anxieties over his unsteady showing in his debate Thursday evening with former President Donald Trump, as elected members of his party closed ranks around him in an effort to shut down talk of replacing him atop the ticket.

Biden's halting delivery and meandering comments, particularly early in the debate, fueled concerns from even members of his own party that at age 81 he's not up for the task of leading the country for another four years.

Even before the debate, Biden's age had been a liability with voters, and Thursday night’s faceoff appeared to reinforce the public’s deep-seated concerns before perhaps the largest audience he will garner before ballots are cast.

Democratic lawmakers on Friday acknowledged Biden's poor showing, but tried to stop talk of replacing him as their standard-bearer, and instead tried to shift the focus onto Trump's attacks and falsehoods that they hoped would remind voters of the daily turbulence of his presidency.

The 78-year-old Trump’s rhetoric offered Americans an unwelcome reminder of the bombast he launched daily during his tumultuous four years in office, as he struggles to win over skeptical voters. He declined to clearly state he would accept the results of the November election. As NPR’s Domenico Montanaro reported, “there were issues for Trump, too, as he continued to spread falsehoods and bathe in the kinds of conspiratorial grievances that have turned off many voters.” Additionally, Montanaro pointed out that some of the changes made to the format benefited Trump, allowing him to appear more “sedate than usual.”

Montanaro continued, “Trump employed rounds of verbal jujitsu, in which he threw back his own vulnerabilities and directed them toward Biden. He was even able at one point, during a strange exchange about golf handicaps, to say, ‘Let’s not act like children.’"

After the debate, public radio listeners in Michigan and across the country shared their thoughts during a special call-in show from The Middle. Michigan Public's Political Director Zoe Clark took calls with host Jeremy Hobson and journalist Josh Barro. Listeners all over the nation called in and many expressed their concerns and disappointment with the debate.

“The callers overall seemed frustrated. They are engaged with the process. They were paying attention to these two candidates and they overall didn’t like what they saw and heard,” Clark told Michigan Public after the call-in show. “One caller said he was ‘tired of voting against, rather than for a candidate.’ That kind of tells you everything you need to know right now,” Clark said.

You can listen to the full hour of The Middle below, or download it via your favorite podcast platform.

Biden and his allies were looking to brush aside concerns about his delivery to keep the focus on the choice for voters this November. They seized on Trump’s equivocations on whether he would accept the will of voters this time around, his refusal to condemn the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden, and his embrace of the conservative-leaning Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade that had legalized abortion nationwide.

Trump's comments, Biden's team insisted, are out of step with the majority of voters and will serve as fodder for the barrage of ads that they will see through Election Day.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat frequently mentioned as a 2028 contender and speculated about as a potential replacement for Biden on the ticket should he step aside, released a statement backing him on Friday.

“The difference between Joe Biden’s vision for making sure everyone in America has a fair shot and Donald Trump’s dangerous, self-serving plans will only get sharper as we head toward November,” she said.

On Friday’s edition of Michigan Public’s Stateside, MPRN reporter Colin Jackson was joined by Jordyn Hermani from Bridge Michigan and Sam Schreiber with the Michigan Information and Research Service to discuss the possibility of Whitmer as a potential replacement for Biden. You can hear that below.

Stateside's political roundup with Colin Jackson

It's no secret that Whitmer's political star has risen since her days in the state Legislature, but the question the panel first addressed was how it rose so quickly, and to such prominence nationally.

"Governor Gretchen Whitmer, from the start, her entire gubernatorial career has been marred by one thing after another. Frankly, there was Covid. She had her kidnaping. She sparred publicly with the president on Twitter during the Covid pandemic," Hermani said. "She's a young woman. So that's two things that are currently not what Joe Biden is, frankly. A lot of the Democratic Party voters are looking for something new. Biden was, as many voters will say, somewhat foisted upon them. And so she her name comes up a lot because she is seen as a very appealing alternative to the current president as well."

Currently, Whitmer serves as the national co-chair of the Biden reelection campaign — something the panel wondered would help or hurt her in this moment where Biden appears politically vulnerable.

"I think right now it's all about Governor Whitmer using her capacity as governor to stack up wins ... to use to her advantage. So what could be some of those wins? I obviously think about how she has become this huge voice on the abortion issue," Schreiber said. "Obviously, she was able to see the passage of proposal three in Michigan during the 2022 elections. That enshrined [that] abortion access is a right under the state constitution. She was able to sign the Reproductive Health Act, legislation that eliminates some various barriers and restrictions to abortion services. So she's been able to kind of capitalize off of the abortion topic, but what are going to be her wins that she secures in 2024?"

Another name being thrown into the ring is California Governor Gavin Newsom. Our panel discussed how Whitmer stacks up against Newsom, and what she might need to be on the lookout for in a potential run in 2028, or even in 2024. You can hear that and more in the conversation above.

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