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Here’s what voters had to say following the first 2024 debate showdown between Joe Biden and Donald Trump

By John King, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) — Larry Malinconico went to bed worried about President Joe Biden’s debate performance. He woke up thinking he should do something about it.

Malinconico is an independent and a college geology professor in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, a bellwether area in one of the nation’s most competitive presidential battlegrounds.

“I’m extremely concerned,” Malinconico said just after the CNN debate Thursday night. “President Biden performed poorly, His voice was weak. He stumbled and had difficulty staying on track with his answers.”

Still, he cannot fathom the alternative and ended his debate night take with this: “Despite my significant concerns about Biden’s capabilities, I will still vote against Trump.”

But early Friday afternoon, Malinconico reached out to add this: “After sleeping on the debate overnight … now I’m much more in favor of supporting moves to have President Biden drop out or for an open (brokered perhaps) convention.”

It was one of a flood of voter reactions highly critical of the president’s debate performance, and one of several suggesting the debate, at least in the short term, damaged the incumbent’s standing with voters critical to his reelection  hopes.

Pat Levin is another Northampton County resident. The 94-year-old told us when we first met a few months ago that she was not worried about Biden’s age. She is still planning to vote Biden, but her reaction was also quite telling.

Levin had nice things to say about Vice President Kamala Harris and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, praising their interviews after the debate. “Nothing good to say,” though, about Biden – and the overall substance of the CNN Presidential Debate.

“Biden whispered, spoke haltingly and appeared exceedingly vulnerable,” Levin, told CNN in a text message. “It was a sad night for American politics.”

Michael Pesce, a self-described Reagan Republican who says he cannot support Trump, offered a similar take.

“Last night was a horror show,” Pesce said Friday. “Biden looked old and doddering and not at all presidential. Trump was angry and bombastic and unable to say anything truthful.”

Pesce told us in May he would reluctantly vote for Biden because he sees Trump as unfit for the presidency. His morning after debate take was telling – and, again, troublesome for Biden.

“The Democrats need to have an open convention and rally behind a much younger candidate,” Pesce said.

Pesce, 60, lives in Bucks County in the Philadelphia suburbs, and like Northampton, is a battleground within the battleground.

Malinconico, Levin and Pesce are participating in a CNN project designed to track the 2024 campaign through the eyes and experiences of voters who live in the  battlegrounds and are part of critical voting blocs.

There are 60 voters participating so far, across 10 states, and they are diverse in every way. But the overwhelming consensus after the debate, from Democrats and Republicans alike, was that Biden’s showing was alarming.

“I’m really scared that if Biden stays on the ticket, Trump is going to win,” said Davette Baker, an African American and longtime Democratic organizer in Milwaukee.

And while strong Trump supporters were happy with his performance, the former president, too, faced some harsh criticism from many of our voters, even Republicans.

“Same old Donald, talked about himself,” said Matt Vrahiotes, a Christian conservative who owns a small winery in Hall County, Georgia. “Stroked his ego.”

Still, Vrahiotes said Trump “seems to be more cognitive and mentally sharper.” When we first met, Vrahiotes said he would consider a third party option, and his after the debate take reflected his continued despair at the major party choices.

“Why not allow Kennedy on stage,” he said of independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who failed to meet the CNN debate criteria.

Four big takeaways from our voters:

–– Those already unhappy with their choices came away from the debate even more sour about a Biden-Trump rematch.

“I hate that Trump talks down about America,’” said Antonio Munoz, a veteran who owns a Las Vegas restaurant and catering business. “I’m not motivated to vote. Biden’s closing was weak.”

–– Younger voters who align with Biden on many issues but feel little connection with him because of his age were taken aback by his performance.

“I was genuinely shocked,” said Christine Ngyuen, 29, a former nurse who recently opened a Boba tea house in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur.

“Both of our candidates are far too old to be doing what they are doing,” said Summer Matkin, a student at Wayne State University who lives in the Detroit suburbs.

Committed Democrats who plan to vote for Biden regardless of his performance still voiced exasperation because the debate reinforced their worries Trump could win the election.

“It felt like he let Trump drive a dangerously false narrative and could do nothing more than say, ‘That’s a lie’ without fully establishing the truth strongly,” said Anushka Jalistagi, a recent University of Michigan graduate and former co-president of the campus College Democrats.

Trump supporters approved of his debate performance but there was no evidence in our group that he gained support.

“Sad. We don’t have the sharpest tacks in the box to vote for,” said Kim Cavaliere, a nurse in suburban Atlanta who is undecided and unhappy with her choices. “I bet other countries are laughing at us. I was.”

Ibrahim Ghazal, a Palestinian-American law student from the Detroit area, is angry with Biden over the Hamas-Israel conflict and leaning against voting for him again. But he had a dim view of Trump before the debate, and a dimmer one after.

“Trump had much better stage presence than Biden,” Ghazal said in a text Friday. “What was most disturbing to me was that Trump used the word ‘Palestinian’ as a slur.”

This was Trump during an exchange about the Hamas-Israel conflict: “You should let them go and let them finish the job. He doesn’t want to do it. He has become like a Palestinian. But, they don’t like him because he is a very bad Palestinian. He is a weak one.”

Linda Rooney, a registered Republican who lives just outside of Philadelphia, voted for Biden in 2020 but said this year she would either “hold my nose” and vote for Trump or write in a conservative. There are 18 weeks left in the campaign, but Trump’s debate showing did not win a commitment from Rooney.

“Last night’s debate was a disaster for Biden but what scares me more is that the Republicans can’t say they have a good candidate either,” she said. “How did my party get to the point where the only way we may win the presidency again is because we are up against someone who is feeble and not well? … Republicans should not be taking a victory lap.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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