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In Pittsburgh visit, Newsom urges anxious Democrats to rally around Biden in 'existential moment'

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to Democratic Party loyalists at a Biden campaign office.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to Democratic Party loyalists at a Biden campaign office in Castle Shannon, as state House members Dan Miller and Nick Pisciottano look on.

With Democrats nationwide in turmoil amid questions about President Joe Biden’s age and fitness, California Gov. Gavin Newsom came to Pittsburgh Friday to shore up confidence in his party’s standard-bearer. And he argued vociferously for Biden’s qualifications even as the political rumor mill suggests that someone else — perhaps Newsom himself — would be better qualified to run against Donald Trump this fall.

America’s founders, he said, “did not live and die to see us fall prey to cynicism. They didn’t live and die to see us fall prey to fear [or] despair or fatalism that somehow the future is decided for us on Nov. 5. They lived and died so that we can step up and step in and meet moments like this, these existential moments.”

Newsom portrayed the election as a choice between “daylight and darkness. It’s not complicated.”

Biden’s administration, he said, had led to “this great American comeback with a man of integrity, honor, decency.” He noted a new report showing a robust 206,000 jobs created in June, though many of those were government jobs and the report also shows signs of cooling.

By contrast, he decried the tumult of Trump’s administration and a legacy that included a 13-year-old rape victim who gave birth due to restrictive state abortion laws permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights.

“That’s Donald Trump’s America … the tyranny of Donald Trump and this Supreme Court,” he said.

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Newsom’s appearance in Pittsburgh comes at a critical moment for the Biden campaign and for the 2024 election itself. He spoke just hours before ABC News was set to air an hour’s worth of Biden being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos Friday evening. That interview, which will be voters’ first chance to hear Biden speak at length since his disastrous June 27 debate appearance, may be a make-or-break moment for Biden.

In his speech, Newsom made almost no mention of Biden’s debate performance a week before. But speaking with reporters afterward he acknowledged that the campaign is at a crossroads.

“Today’s a big day. None of us are naive about the president’s schedule,” he said. “None of us are naive about the pivot after that debate.”

Newsom was among a group of Democratic governors who met with Biden on Wednesday: The gathering was followed by a show of support from those leaders, although there have been reports that some participants were put off by Biden saying he needed more sleep and fewer late nights.

Afterwards, Newsom posted on social media that Biden’s message was “he’s all in. And so am I. Joe Biden’s had our back. Now it’s time to have his.”

He reiterated that message Friday, telling reporters he would go “wherever and whenever” the campaign asked, “because of the seriousness of purpose I place on this election.”

Asked about the stakes of the ABC interview, Newsom said Biden “was saying to us, the governors at the meeting a few days ago: Joe Biden needs to be Joe Biden. He needs to be Scranton Joe.” And he said in the ABC appearance he needed to offer “less stats, less details and figures” and instead “connect at a family level.

“No one does that better than Joe Biden, and so that’s what we’re hoping to see not just tonight, but reintroduced over the course of the next few months," Newsom said.

Democrats are privately, and in some cases publicly, expressing increased misgivings about Biden’s ability to campaign effectively, given his debate performance and other times he has faltered when cameras are on.

While polls haven’t shown an out-and-out freefall in Biden’s standing since the debate, they strongly indicated a shift in public opinion that has strengthened Trump’s hand. In Pennsylvania, Biden already consistently lagged Trump in surveys. And while the margins have been modest, Biden’s debate performance would seem unlikely to reverse them: Polling nationwide shows broad concern about Biden’s mental fitness.

Trump's campaign, meanwhile, accused Democrats of having lied "about Joe Biden’s cognitive state and supported his disastrous policies over the past four years. ... President Trump will beat any Democrat on November 5th because he has a proven record and an agenda to Make America Great Again."

Newsom himself has long been considered a potential candidate for president — speculation that has acquired new urgency amid questions about Biden’s fitness. But he has been an active surrogate for Biden: He was on hand at the June 27 debate to provide pro-Democratic analysis and talking points, and his visit to Pittsburgh comes on the heels of a similar appearance in Michigan, where he likewise emphasized Biden’s fitness to lead and broad support from Democrats. He addressed concerns about the debate far more explicitly there, though he pointedly declined to engage in speculation about whether Biden would withdraw or who might replace him at the top of the ticket.

Asked about the shift in messaging, Newsom said the Pittsburgh event was a Biden campaign office opening attended by staunch loyalists whose energy he was trying to capture.

“I try not to bore everybody by saying the same thing over and over,” he said.

But he made no apologies for keeping up his attacks on Trump, blasting him on a range of matters: his support of tariffs that economists say would likely worsen inflation pressures; his threat to begin mass deportations of immigrants who are in the United States illegally; and for a July 4 social media message that accused Biden of having “choked like a dog during the debate." (Biden’s July 4 message focused on thanking service members.)

“There’s a deviancy of normalcy with him that’s very damaging to our kids, the culture, our values, who we are as Americans," Newsom said of Trump. "It’s not about Democrat or Republican.“

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.