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Biden campaigns through Pennsylvania as his team quietly braces for more Democratic defections

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

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — President Joe Biden urged supporters to stay unified at a rousing Black church service in critical Pennsylvania on Sunday, even as his campaign team quietly braced for growing pressure on him to abandon his reelection bid amid intensifying questions about whether he’s fit for another term.

Speaking from a stage flanked by sunshine from stained-glass windows at northwest Philadelphia’s Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, the 81-year-old Biden laughed off concerns about his age, joking “I know I look 40” but “I’ve been doing this a long time.”

“I, honest to God, have never been more optimistic about America’s future if we stick together,” Biden said. He didn’t use a teleprompter, which has become more common since his disastrous debate performance, but spoke from a prepared speech.

That followed Biden joining a Saturday call with campaign surrogates and reiterating that he has no plans to leave the race, despite a political situation that is increasingly precarious. Instead, the president pledged to campaign harder going forward and to hit the road more frequently, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Five Democratic lawmakers have already called on him to abandon his reelection campaign ahead of November, and more could do so in the coming days, as Congress reconvenes. Meeting in person means more chances 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 former President Donald Trump.

Biden’s campaign team is quietly preparing for more Democrats to say the president should yield to another candidate in coming days, while holding the call with surrogates and calling and texting lawmakers to try and head off more potential defections. They are also tasking high-profile Biden supporters to speak out, in hopes of bringing those with lingering concerns back in line.

Alan Clendenin, a Tampa city councilman and member of the Democratic National Committee, said on Sunday, “I believe it is in the best interest of our country and the world that President Joe Biden step aside and allow Vice President Kamala Harris to carry forward his agenda as our Democratic nominee.”

And director Rob Reiner, who has helped organize glitzy Hollywood fundraisers for Biden in the past, posted on X, “It’s time for Joe Biden to step down.”

With the Democratic convention fast approaching, the short term is especially critical. Those who feel Biden is no longer up to the task are imploring Democrats to replace him at the top of the ticket before, they argue, it’s too late.

Biden’s Friday interview with ABC has not convinced some who remain skeptical. That’s despite a weekend boost coming from other key Democrats who had raised previous questions but now have moved to support Biden, led by Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Democratic fundraising bundler Barry Goodman, a Michigan attorney, said Sunday that he still backs Biden but, should he step aside, he’d back Harris. That’s notable since Goodman was also a finance co-chairman for both of the statewide campaigns of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has also been mentioned as a top-of-the-ticket alternative.

“We don’t have much time,” Goodman said. “I don’t think the president gets out. But if he does, I think it would be Kamala.”

Biden nonetheless found an exceedingly friendly audience at Mount Airy, where Pastor Louis Felton likened the president to Joseph and the biblical story of his “coat of many colors.” In it, Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, only to eventually obtain a high place in the kingdom of the pharaoh and have his brothers beg him for assistance without initially recognizing him.

“Never count Joseph out,” Felton implored. Then, referring to Democrats who have called on Biden to step aside, he added, “That’s what’s going on, Mr. President. People are jealous of you. Jealous of your stick-to-itiveness, jealous of your favor. Jealous of God’s hand upon your life.”

That came after Biden entered to applause and a cry of “Let him know we are with him!”

“There is no election we can not win,” Felton told those assembled. “We are together because we love our president.”

He also called Biden “a fighter” and “winner” and led a prayer where he said, “Our president gets discouraged. But today, through your holy spirit, renew his mind, renew his spirt, renew his body.”

The visit gave Biden 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.

After the church service, Biden visited a campaign office in Philadelphia, where Sen. John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat who won a tough 2022 race while recovering from a stroke, offered a forceful endorsement of the president.

“There is only one guy that has ever beaten Trump,” Fetterman said. “And he is going to do it twice and put him down for good.”

Biden also has a scheduled rally later with union members in Harrisburg. Stepping off Air Force One there, the president was asked if the Democratic Party was behind him and emphatically responded, “Yes.” He returns to Washington, where leaders from NATO countries will gather for a three-day summit beginning Tuesday.

Despite the sentiments of the likes of Fetterman, though, others aren’t fully convinced.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told CNN that Biden “needs to answer those questions that voters have” while adding, “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.”

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

As some Democrats have done, Schiff also seized on Biden suggesting 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.”


Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington, Michelle Price in New York, Meg Kinnard in Chapin, South Carolina, and Bill Barrow in New Orleans contributed to this report.