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Despair in the air: For many voters, the Biden-Trump debate means a tough choice just got tougher

WASHINGTON (AP) – The sound you might have heard after the presidential debate this past week was of voters falling between a rock and a hard place.
Apart from the sizable and pumped-up universe of Donald Trump’s supporters, the debate suddenly crystalised the worries of many Americans, a portion of President Joe Biden’s supporters among them, that neither man is fit to lead the nation.

President Joe Biden (right), and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump (left) are seen on a television at Tillie’s Lounge during the presidential debate in Cincinnati. For many voters in the US, there’s despair in the air after the presidential debate this past week.  --Photo Carolyn Kaster

Heading into the first debate of the general election campaign, voters had faced a choice between two strikingly unpopular candidates. They then watched as Trump told a stream of falsehoods with sharpness, vigor and conviction, while Biden struggled mightily to land debating points and even to get through many sentences. It added to doubts about the 81-year-old Democratic president’s fitness to be in office for four more years.
Now, the options are even more dispiriting for many Democrats, undecided voters and anti-Trump Republicans. More than a few people came away from watching the debate very conflicted.
Outside a Whole Foods in downtown Denver on Friday, registered Democrat Matthew Toellner tilted his head sideways, mouth agape, in an imitation of his favored candidate, Biden, who was seen doing that at times on the split screen when Trump was talking Thursday night.
“I’m going to vote for Biden,” said Toellner, 49, leaning against the wood siding of the grocery store. “Actually, I might not.”
A few minutes later, Toellner looked out to the street and rethought again. “I’m going to vote for Biden, I think I’d be a fool not to. But I just hate that I have to.”
His appeal to Biden and Democrats: “Please step down, get somebody electable.”
On a Detroit park bench, Arabia Simeon was left feeling politically homeless after voting Democratic in the past two presidential elections. “It just feels like we’re doomed no matter what,” she said.
Trump’s disregard for the facts suffused his arguments, though he was rarely challenged on the specifics during the debate. On abortion, for example, one of America’s most divisive issues for generations, the former Republican president claimed there is universal agreement that states should decide on the legality of it. There is ferocious argument about that.
But did that matter? The public reaction, in dozens of interviews across the country, brought to mind Bill Clinton’s post-presidency assessment of what voters want in fraught times: “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.”
The debate unmoored Simeon just as it did Toellner.
The 27-year-old owner of a Detroit start-up went into debate night deciding between Biden and an independent candidate, the most prominent of whom is long shot Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Now she’s leaning against Biden.
“I think it just kind of validated the feeling that I was having that this election is going to be extremely hectic, and it’s no longer the conversation of the lesser of two evils for me,” she said from a park bench on a work break. “It’s more like both of these candidates don’t feel like viable options.”
Simeon said that as a Black and queer person, “It’s really disheartening to know that no matter how far we come as a country, we’re still going to factory reset when it comes to president and have to make a choice between two white men.”
In large part, Democratic lawmakers in Washington and party officials across the United States closed ranks around Biden despite the panic that gripped many of them from his debate performance. But their remarks were measured, seeming to leave an opening if Biden were to make the extraordinary decision to have Democrats find another nominee.
“It’s President Biden’s decision what he wants to do with his life,” said Sharif Street, chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a state senator. .“So far, he’s decided he’s our nominee, and I’m with him.”
To be sure, plenty of Biden supporters saw nothing to throw them off, as much as they tended to think he blew it.
“Worrisome,” Jocardo Ralston of Philadelphia said of Biden’s turn on the stage. Yet, Ralston said, “I’m not conflicted, nor do I feel that I am choosing the lesser of two evils. ... Biden is not the ideal choice for many, but he is the only choice for me, without regrets or hesitation.”
The third-year doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, whose work focuses on the experiences of queer Black and Latino boys in special education classrooms, watched the debate in a Cincinnati bar while visiting the city. “All the work that I do and everything that I fight for is in direct opposition to Trump, his values, and his policies,” he said.

(Latest Update July 1, 2024)

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