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Will Biden’s debate fiasco open the door for Harris and Newsom?

With pressure growing on President Biden to withdraw from the reelection race after his surprisingly dismal performance in the debate, attention will likely be focused even more on two Californians: Vice President Kamala Harris and Governor Gavin Newsom.

While California won't be important in the November election – the state will likely be won easily by any Democratic candidate – the large number of delegates the state will send to the party's national convention in August could play a decisive role in choosing Biden's successor.

Harris topped the initial list of potential replacements, followed by Newsom.

But Harris, 59, is less popular than Biden in polls and is widely seen as a drag on the shortlist, with many voters fearing she could steal the presidency if Biden, 81, fails to complete a second term.

But the former California attorney general sounded firm in a post-debate interview with CNN, and despite my longtime criticism of her, I got the impression she might not be a total flop in the race after all.

In fact, Harris could perform better in public speaking, ditch the robotic script and act more naturally, and she would certainly be a more competitive debater against Republican Donald Trump than a weaker Biden.

Ms Harris showed a genuine conviction that is usually lacking when pitching Mr Biden's policies, and she set out to put on a stellar debate performance.

“Yes, I started slow, that's obvious to everyone,” she said, “but I finished strong at the end.”

No, he wasn't, but he certainly improved after causing so much irreparable damage to himself.

But one hurdle for Harris is that party leaders remember her failed 2020 presidential campaign.

And then there's Newsom, 56.

If Newsom wants to run for president (and he's acting like he wants to), now may be his best chance if he can convince Biden to do so. There's been persistent speculation he'll run in 2028, but he's in the spotlight now, and in four years' time, a Democratic incumbent may be up for reelection.

Newsom is already well prepared. The two-term governor has marketed himself nationally by attacking Republican state policies and playing a staunch Biden surrogate, and he has a veteran campaign organization.

Roger Strasburg of Scottsdale, Arizona, wears a cowboy hat while watching the presidential debate between President Biden and former Republican presidential nominee Trump at a debate viewing party in Scottsdale on Thursday.

(Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

But Mr. Newsom would have to compete for the nomination against Ms. Harris, his old ally in San Francisco, and he has said publicly he will not do that. He has said privately that if he did, he would be seen as a party pariah, especially among black women.

In fact, I never thought a California Democrat would be elected president in these polarized times. Our politics are too left-wing for most of America.

Newsom has the looks and eloquent speaking manner of a Hollywood star, but as governor of California, his greatest political asset is also his greatest weakness.

But an advantage both Harris and Newsom have is that California has a huge delegation to the Democratic National Convention, which will likely back their candidate.

The 496 candidates would get 22% of the votes needed to win the nomination, so California could play a major role in choosing his successor if Biden drops out of the race.

Who else could be a candidate? First, there are the two governors in key battleground states, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. There's also Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, New York House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

No candidate is perfect, but Trump is completely imperfect.

Biden supporters and listless opponents have argued for months that with the presidential election underway, it's too late to switch horses, especially as the final lap approaches. Nonsense.

The convention was designed to be a battle for the nomination, but unfortunately the smoke-filled halls took their toll, Democrats got too carried away with reform, and the convention became a boring TV show with dwindling audiences.

The last time Republicans had a hard-fought convention was in 1976, when they nominated President Ford over Californian Ronald Reagan, who went on to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter. The last time the Democrats had a hard-fought convention was in 1972, when the California delegation pushed George McGovern for the nomination, who was soundly defeated by Californian President Nixon.

Convention infighting can sometimes backfire for the party, but this year may be different.

A Democratic donnybrook could spark new interest in the party and awaken a dormant base that continues to say in polls that they would prefer a much younger president than the 81-year-old incumbent.

Political leaders have a bad habit of covering their ears when they are telling people things they don't want to hear.

Voters are not happy with either choice. At 78, Trump appears to be in better health than Biden, at least physically. But Trump is a pathological liar. “He has the moral compass of a stray cat,” Biden told Trump during the debate.

Voters' anxieties about whether Biden could serve a satisfactory second term were raised again by his choppy, hoarse and awkward speech, in which he lost his train of thought at least once and appeared to have trouble finishing a sentence.

It was the worst performance in the history of a presidential debate.

Reagan's first debate defeat against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in 1984 raised concerns about his age (73), but his performance was not as painful to watch as Biden's; Reagan made a full recovery for the second debate.

Even if Biden's decisions are sound, people still perceive him as weak, which means it will be hard for him to lead the country.

If, as Biden argues, Trump's election truly endangers democracy, the president should step aside and give the party a better chance of defeating this unfit bastard. He will, of course, resist that, but those who trust him should be honest with him and pressure him.

“Don't turn your back [on someone] “What kind of party does this after one performance?” Newsom said in a television interview.

A winning party that puts ideals and country first.

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