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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s family used a Sunday gathering at Camp David to urge him to stay in the race and keep fighting despite his dreadful debate performance, and some members criticized how his staff prepared him for the faceoff, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

Biden spent the day sequestered with first lady Jill Biden, his children and grandchildren. It was a previously scheduled trip to the presidential retreat in Maryland for a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz for the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

But the gathering was also an exercise in trying to figure out how to quell Democratic anxiety that has exploded following Thursday’s performance.

While his family was aware of how poorly he performed against Donald Trump, they also continue to think he’s the best person to beat the Republican presumptive nominee. They also believe he is capable of doing the job of president for another four years, according to the people who were not authorized to speak publicly about internal discussions and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Among the most vocal: Jill Biden and son Hunter, whom the president has long gone to for counsel and advice. Both believe the president shouldn’t bow out when he’s down, and believe that he can come back from what they see as one subpar performance. The family questioned how he was prepared for the debate by staff and wondered if they could have done something better, the people said.

Biden’s campaign has spent the days since the debate — where he appeared raspy, trailed off, and at times gave convoluted answers — working to keep donors and surrogates on board as Democrats increasingly questioned whether he should stay in the race.

At this point in the delegate process, Biden would likely have to decide to drop out for there to be a new nominee. And the people he listens to most in the world — his wife and son — are telling him to stay in.

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Even before the debate, the age of the 81-year-old Democratic president had been a liability with voters, and the prime-time faceoff appeared to reinforce the public’s deep-seated concerns before perhaps the largest audience he will have in the four months until Election Day. CNN said more than 51 million people watched the debate.

While the president was huddled with his family, prominent Democrats rallied to deliver a public show of support for his campaign on Sunday.

“I do not believe that Joe Biden has a problem leading for the next four years,” said one close ally, Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. “Joe Biden should continue to run on his record.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat and Baptist minister, said there had been “more than a few Sundays when I wish I had preached a better sermon,” relating the experience to Biden’s debate performance.

“But after the sermon was over, it was my job to embody the message, to show up for the people that I serve. And that’s what Joe Biden has been doing his entire life,” Warnock said. It was an echo of the message from other supporters that Biden had a bad debate, but a lifetime of good governance.

Warnock, like Clyburn and others, pivoted to Trump’s many falsehoods during the debate — lapses that Biden and the debate moderators often failed to fact check from the stage — including about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, immigration and the outcome of the 2020 election.

“Whenever his mouth was moving, he was lying,” Warnock said of Trump.

But concern simmered among some Democrats that Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee were not taking seriously enough the impact of the debate.

Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who served for more than two decades with Biden in the Senate, called the debate “a disaster from which Biden cannot recover.”

Harkin suggested that Democratic senators in pivotal races and “maybe all incumbent Democratic Senators should pen a letter to Biden asking him to release his delegates and step aside so the convention can choose a new candidate,” according to an email to supporters that was obtained by The Associated Press. It was first referenced in Iowa journalist Julie Gammack’s column on Saturday, Iowa Potluck.

“This is a perilous time, and is more important than the ego or desires of Joe Biden to stay as President,” Harkin concluded.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., described “very honest, serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party … about what to do.”

But DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison and Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, held a Saturday afternoon call with dozens of committee members across the country — a group of some of the most influential members of the party — where they offered a rosy assessment of the path forward and gave no opportunity for others on the call to respond with questions.

Multiple committee members on the call, most granted anonymity to talk about the private discussion, described feeling like they were being asked to ignore a serious predicament.

“There were a number of things that could have been said in addressing the situation. But we didn’t get that. We were being gaslit,” said Joe Salazar, an elected DNC member from Colorado, who was on the call.

Additional reporting from Thomas Beaumont reporting from Des Moines, Iowa and Zeke Miller reporting from the Bahamas. AP writers Steve Peoples, Matthew Daly, Seung Min Kim and Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.

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