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Newsom Urges Michigan Democrats to Stay Calm and Support Biden

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California told angsty Michigan Democrats on Thursday that President Biden had been engaged and all in on his re-election campaign during a White House meeting a day before. And Mr. Newsom suggested, gently, that party activists take a deep breath and rally behind the incumbent.

“What I need to convince you of is not to be fatalistic, not to fall prey to all this negativity,” Mr. Newsom told more than 100 fellow Democrats who had gathered on the Fourth of July holiday in South Haven, Mich.

Democrats have had a brutal week since Mr. Biden’s rocky debate performance last week, and calls for him to exit the race have exposed rifts within the party.

Mr. Newsom came to Michigan, a crucial swing state, as a surrogate campaigning for Mr. Biden. But it was hard to ignore the fact that he was also among the leading names being circulated as a potential replacement candidate — along with the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer.

Mr. Newsom on Thursday did not veer from the party line that Mr. Biden remained the nominee and that Democrats were not interested in replacing him. The California governor did not so much as hint that he was interested in the job.

“I believe in this man,” Mr. Newsom said. “I believe in his character. I believe that he has been one of the most transformative presidents in our collective lifetime.”

Mr. Newsom, who was among several Democratic governors who met with the president in person on Wednesday at the White House, came to Michigan with a message of reassurance for party loyalists. Yes, he acknowledged, the debate was not terrific. But the president he saw at the White House on Wednesday, he said, “was the Joe Biden that I remember from two years ago.”

Still, Democrats were on edge after watching last week’s debate. Mike Steil, 76, a lifelong Democrat, said that he had concerns about Mr. Biden’s age and that he would advise the president to have Vice President Kamala Harris replace him atop the 2024 ticket. Mr. Steil, a retired teacher, said he would have given the president a D grade for his debate performance.

“It was embarrassing. It was frightening. It made me angry,” Mr. Steil said of the debate. “I actually couldn’t sit still. I had to get up and leave the room a couple times.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Steil said, Mr. Biden had been a good president — and one he would vote for again, he said, if the ticket remained the same. The stakes of the election, Mr. Steil said, were enormous, with democracy itself on the line.

Mr. Newsom’s visit underscored the importance of Michigan to both campaigns. Mr. Trump carried the state in 2016, Mr. Biden won it in 2020 and Democrats believe that winning it again this year will be key to holding the White House. Recent polls in Michigan have shown a tight race, with Mr. Trump generally holding a slight lead.

Jan Petersen, 67, a farmer who raises grass-fed beef in southwest Michigan, said she appreciated Mr. Newsom’s reassuring message for Democrats. She was disappointed with post-debate news coverage of Mr. Biden, and said she hoped he would stay in the race.

“I don’t want to complain, but it feels like they’re highlighting the wrong things,” Ms. Petersen said.

Mr. Newsom spoke in Van Buren County, a lakefront area of 75,000 people in southwest Michigan that leans Republican and was buzzing on Thursday with red-white-and-blue-clad families enjoying the holiday in South Haven’s walkable downtown. Mr. Trump carried Van Buren County by 12 percentage points in 2020, but Ms. Whitmer came much closer in her re-election win two years ago, losing the county by 2 percentage points.

The event in South Haven came a day after Jill Biden, the first lady, rallied Democrats at the opening of a campaign office in Traverse City, Mich., a 200-mile drive north. In Traverse City, some Democrats said they wished Mr. Biden would step aside, but the first lady indicated that he would stay in the race.

Mary Andersson, 74, who wore an “I like Joe!” button at Mr. Newsom’s speech, said she was excited to vote for a second term for the president, and that she “absolutely” wanted him to remain in the race. She said she believed that he would win Michigan again.

“He represents and supports all my values,” said Ms. Andersson, a retired teacher who is active with the Democratic Party in a neighboring county. “I know a lot of 80-year-olds who are sharp.”

If Mr. Biden were to step down, it is far from certain how Democrats would choose a nominee; their first decision would be whether to have Ms. Harris become the party’s candidate, or to open the race to others like Mr. Newsom.

A reporter asked Mr. Newsom after his speech on Thursday whether he would support Ms. Harris as the presidential nominee if Mr. Biden were to drop out. The governor rejected the premise of the question.

“I don’t even like playing in the hypotheticals, because last night was about sort of locking down any doubt or ambiguity,” Mr. Newsom said, alluding to the White House meeting.

“Joe Biden is our president,” the governor added. “He said he’s all in.”

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