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The debate with its multiple connotations

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It was the first debate between the current Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. It took place in Atlanta more than four months ahead of the 2024 US Presidential election. It provided a platform to discuss several difficult issues pertaining to socio-economic dimensions, immigration and international affairs where the United States has been playing a very significant role.

US President Joe Biden's unhappy performance in the debate has reignited questions about what would happen should the veteran Democrat step down as party flag bearer at the last minute. Analysts have pointed out that such a political decision would be unprecedented in modern American election history. However, such a possibility has been denied by Biden.

It needs to be understood that the US electoral-political paradigm has a complex matrix. The electoral process needs a scenario where certain measures have to be followed. To designate a formal nominee, delegates from all 50 States have to attend their Party's summer convention to officially anoint a candidate based on primary voting. It needs to be recalled in this context that Biden overwhelmingly won the primary votes, and the party's roughly 3,900 delegates heading to the convention in Chicago this August are obliged to him in this regard.

If Biden exits at any point now, the delegates would have to find a replacement through a very complex method where party bosses will have to pick a nominee through deal-making and many rounds of voting. It will indeed be a hassle and reminds one of why on March 31, 1968 President Lyndon Johnson made the shock announcement in the middle of the Vietnam War that he would not seek reelection. The move turned that year's convention, also in Chicago, into a political crisis with protesters in the street and left-leaning delegates angry at the pro-war stance of party-picked candidate Hubert Humphrey.

Following this debacle, States more widely embraced the primary process and associated conventions whose outcomes are known in advance since they are determined by the Primaries. In such a scenario, a Party's formal governing body, either the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee, would nominate a new candidate through an extraordinary session.

Many can at this juncture ask the question as to whether a strong third-party hopeful can emerge in this scenario? In this context one has to refer to what happened in 1992. That year, Texas billionaire Ross Perot, running as an independent, managed to win nearly 19 per cent of the popular vote. However, in the end, because of the notions of the American electoral system, he did not receive a single one of the votes that matter most-- those of the 538 members of the Electoral College that ultimately decide the winner. In fact, so far, no independent candidate has posed any danger to America's dominant two-party system.

As the disappointment of Biden's showing in the debate registered with Democrats, there were even talks of finding a new candidate before the Party's convention in August. The New York Times has reported that Democrat "including members of his own administration traded frenzied phone calls and text messages within minutes of the start of the debate as it became clear that Mr. Biden was not at his sharpest." Some also "privately discussed among themselves whether it was too late to persuade the President to step aside in favour of a younger candidate," the paper added. Even a German official coordinating cooperation with the United States told a German newspaper that Democrats should consider replacing Biden as their candidate. Keith Nahigian, a Republican veteran of six campaigns who helped prepare multiple election candidates including John McCain for debates, has told AFP that Biden's performance was "the worst I've ever seen. Biden called for this debate a few months ago. He pushed for this debate. I think he just sunk his Presidency," he added. Ralph Reed, chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, compared the debate to a prize fight "that should have been stopped in the early rounds."

   President Joe Biden has, however, hit back according to analyst Bernd Debusmann Jr. at criticism over his age, telling supporters in a fiery speech that he will win re-election in November after a poor debate performance had fueled concern about his candidacy. "I know I'm not a young man, to state the obvious," he told a rally in the battleground state of North Carolina, one day after he struggled in the televised showdown with his Republican rival. He added "but I know what I do know, I know how to tell the truth?and I know how to do this job." President Biden, 81, said he believed with his "heart and soul" that he could serve another term, as the cheering crowd in Raleigh chanted "four more years".

Trump, meanwhile, also held a rally of his own in Virginia just hours later, where he hailed a "big victory" in the debate, which CNN said was viewed by 48 million people on television and millions more online. "Joe Biden's problem is not his age," the 78-year-old Trump said. "It's his competence. He's grossly incompetent." The former President also remarked that he did not believe speculation that Mr Biden would drop out of the race, saying he "does better in polls" than other Democrats.

Nevertheless, one needs to note how some countries all over the world have responded to the debate. While some of the reviews appeared to be most sarcastic of President Biden's performance, his Republican challenger also did not escape criticism.

The Russian media, as expected, portrayed Biden's performance in the debate as lackluster. It also highlighted Trump's attacks on Mr Biden's handling of the Ukraine war. However, the Kremlin also knows that there is no guaranteed pay-out for Moscow. The Kremlin was left disappointed by the first Trump Presidency. In 2016 the Russian authorities had expected an improvement in Russia-US relations - but that never materialised for them. Many in Russia today feel that a second Trump Presidency might leave Moscow feeling similarly underwhelmed. One aspect is, however, clear. Whoever wins the race for the White House this time, the Russian authorities will be watching closely for signs of post-election political instability and polarisation in America and looking for ways to benefit from such a dynamic.

The Chinese media appears to have been moved by the theatrics of the debate, and many outlets highlighted that Biden and Trump did not shake hands at the beginning of the debate but went on to launch "fierce personal attacks against each other". The state-owned Global Times described the debate being similar to "a reality show".

Analyst Laura Bicker referring to US interest over China have pointed out that both candidates are vying to be tough on Beijing and have similar economic policies to combat China's rise including raising tariffs on cheap Chinese goods. However, according to Laura Bicker, they seem to have very different approaches to dealing with China's regional influence. Biden has shored up relationships there, in the hope that a united front sends a clear message to an increasingly assertive Beijing. But when President, Trump focused less on being a statesman and more on what he saw was the "best deal". He threatened to remove US troops from South Korea unless Seoul paid Washington more money. The biggest difference between the two is in Taiwan. On multiple occasions, Biden reiterated a pledge to come to the self-governing island's defence if President Xi makes good on his promise to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary. On the other hand, Trump has accused Taiwan of undermining American businesses and he has expressed opposition to a US bill which sent aid there. That led some to question whether he would be willing to come to Taipei's aid, if needed. This has led Bicker to observe that when the US votes, China is unlikely to have a favourite in the fight. In Beijing's view, an unpredictable Trump could weaken and divide US allies in the region, but he could also create another trade war. They are also not "too keen on another four years of Biden either. They believe his alliance building has the potential to create a new Cold War."

In Israel, the media agreed that Mr. Biden looked "weak", and theorised how a Trump presidential win would affect the ongoing Gaza war. They pointed out Trump's comment that if he was President, the October 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel would not have happened. The media also highlighted Trump's pro-Israel credentials and drew attention to his comment that Biden "has become like a Palestinian. But they don't like him. Because he's a very bad Palestinian. He's a very weak one."

Latin America's media were riveted by what they called the "tense" presidential debate, highlighting their rancorous exchanges over immigration, the economy, abortion and global politics. Many media analysts in the region saw Trump succeeding in stoking doubts about Mr. Biden's age by pummeling him energetically on issues sensitive to US voters, such as inflation and immigration.

The Turkish media described the debate as a "poor" performance by President Biden which may lead to "panic" among the Democrats. Such criticism included academic Hilmi Bolatoglu's post on X that Mr. Biden's performance strengthened indications that a "new Trump era is approaching". Coverage also raised eyebrows about the general quality of the debate. It needs to be pointed out that many analysts in Turkey have long been cool on Mr. Biden's Presidency and have accused him of "hypocrisy" on the Israel-Gaza war and have also voiced doubt about his emphasis on defending the "liberal international order".

Anthony Zurcher, BBC's Senior North America reporter has interestingly remarked that President Biden may not be the only one with an opportunity to defy expectations. However, Democrats have been warning for more than a year that Trump is obsessed with revenge and retribution, and that he is an aspiring autocrat who presents an existential threat to American democracy.

One can only observe that both candidates will have a chance to reset and rebuild from any damage during their tightly scripted national conventions, which are taking place later in the summer. There is also another debate scheduled in September that could erase this first debate from voters' memories.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. 
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