People watch the CNN presidential debate between US President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a debate watch party at The Continental Club on June 27, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

A halting Joe Biden struggled Thursday, June 27, to hold off a forceful offensive from Donald Trump as the two traded personal insults in the fiery first debate of a razor-close presidential race.

A bombastic Trump lashed out at his successor, calling him a failure on the economy and the world stage. Biden looked to hit back but his delivery was hesitant as he spoke rapidly in a soft, trailing-off voice and stumbled on his words several times.

It was the first debate ever between a president and former president – and each accused each other of being history’s worst. Trump and Biden, who were each the oldest president when first elected, even accused each other of being childlike as they argued over their golf swings.

‘A really disappointing debate performance’

Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, did not shake hands as they walked to their podiums at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. There was no live audience and their microphones were muted as the other spoke – rules agreed to as they opened a campaign in a deeply polarized country.

Biden, who was reported to have a cold, hit Trump with clearly rehearsed lines as he sought to remind millions of television viewers that Trump would be the first convicted felon in the White House. “Think of all the civil penalties you have. How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for, for molesting a woman in public,” Biden said, and “for having sex with a porn star on the night, while your wife was pregnant?” “You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden said.

Trump spoke loudly as he rushed through a long list of complaints about Biden’s record. “It’s a shame what’s happened to our country in the last four years,” Trump said “I’m friends with a lot of people. They cannot believe what happened to the United States of America. We’re no longer respected.” Trump sought to seize on Biden’s delivery, saying at one point, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Kate Bedingfield, a former Biden communications director, acknowledged that “it was a really disappointing debate performance” from the president. “I don’t think there is any other way to slice it,” she told CNN after the debate.

Attack on economic record

Biden immediately attacked Trump when he was asked about stubborn inflation, saying that he inherited an economy in “freefall.” Trump said that he led “the greatest economy in the history of our country.” “We have never done so well. Everybody was amazed by other countries were copying us,” he said. Biden shot back: “Well, look, the greatest economy in the world? He’s the only one who thinks that.”

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In one of the most personal attacks, Biden cited accounts that Trump had described soldiers who died in the Normandy landing as “suckers” and noted his own son Beau, who served in Iraq and later died of cancer. “My son was not a loser, was not a sucker. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser,” Biden said. Trump denied the remarks and repeatedly accused Biden of not being coherent.

Clash on world role

On the world stage, Trump accused Biden – who faces a backlash from parts of his Democratic base over his support for Israel – of not helping Israel “finish the job” against Hamas. “He doesn’t want to do it. He’s become like a Palestinian – but they don’t like him because he’s a very bad Palestinian, he’s a weak one,” Trump said.

Trump described Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as the “most embarrassing moment in the history of our country” and said it encouraged Russia to invade Ukraine. Biden, however, noted that he was the first recent president who has not had soldiers at risk overseas.

Trump and Biden also locked horns over abortion and immigration, key issues for their respective bases.

Biden, attacking Trump for appointing justices to the Supreme Court who ended Roe vs. Wade, the decision that allowed abortion rights around the country, said: “It’s been a terrible thing, what you’ve done.”

Le Monde with AP and AFP

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