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Former Republicans were ready to embrace Biden to beat Trump. And then came the debate.

By Elle Reeve and Samantha Guff, CNN

Denver (CNN) — A couple of weeks ago, there was conversation and conviviality among a bunch of strangers brought together at a bar in Denver by their shared antipathy towards former President Donald Trump.

Many were Republicans or former Republicans who were finally in a place where they could talk openly about their political views and how they wanted to stop Trump from returning to the White House in what’s set to be a tight election this fall.

Becky Hofer said it was “tough to find a community” in her “very red” home state of South Dakota. She used to consider herself a Republican but said the party had transformed over the last decade. “It’s hard for me to wake up every morning and talk to my neighbors and know that they’re supporting somebody that just doesn’t match any of their values,” she said. “They’re throwing away all of their values to support a person, for what? Tax breaks that we’re really not going to get?”

Hofer and hundreds of others at the event hosted by The Bulwark, a media organization created by former Republican operatives and conservative writers who oppose Trump, talked of their political journeys and how many had come to terms with crossing party lines and supporting President Joe Biden.

Paul Ivancie of Denver told CNN: “My politics is former Republican. Unaffiliated now, but leaning heavily towards, I think, voting for the only alternative, which is Biden or the Democratic side.”

But then came the debate.

Biden’s dismal performance and Trump’s continued false claims in the CNN event raised new concerns for these voters, who already consider themselves “politically homeless.”

“I am very concerned about Joe Biden,” Hofer said. She had a visceral reaction to his appearance, because it reminded her of the early years of her mom’s diagnosis with dementia. She’d gone through her mom’s belongings and found little slips with important phone numbers and addresses tucked into her wallet, and napkin drawer and clothes, because her mom had been hiding that she was losing her memory. “Joe Biden needs to be replaced because, in my opinion, it is nothing short of elder abuse,” she said.

“I think the fact that we as an entire country are sitting here watching people wheel our elderly politicians around like it’s ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ is disgusting. … He needs to be replaced if for anything just out of respect for his humanity.”

Robin Hawkland had enjoyed being with fellow Bulwark listeners. “You feel safe here and you feel like you can speak your mind,” she told CNN. “And people may disagree, but you can talk about it in a rational way.”

Any positive political feelings were wiped away by the debate, which she said shocked both her and her husband. “The next day, we started feeling kind of angry watching the news – like, have they been hiding something from us about Biden?”

She continued: “Everybody sees it. Everybody I’ve talked to. Everybody’s concerned about it. More so the people who don’t want Trump elected.”

Hawkland, a health care worker, said she had already “fled” her home in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district in north Georgia after the congresswoman was “pretty abusive to people wearing masks during Covid.” She and her husband, who voted for Trump in 2016, now live in a “blue bubble” neighborhood of Salt Lake City in the red state of Utah. She said they both registered as Democrats when they got their new Utah drivers licenses.

But once again, their worlds have been turned upside down.

“You’ve got all these people who were Republicans, they’re asking: ‘What? Why? I’m just in the same bad situation in this party.’”

Still, these voters had no warmer feelings for Trump after the debate, and perhaps more alarm about a possible second term after the Supreme Court ruled that a former president has “some immunity from criminal prosecution” for official acts.

“Donald Trump did not answer a single question. The Supreme Court ruling … has me sick to my stomach,” Hofer said, back home in South Dakota.

“I think it is critical Donald Trump does not win.”

That was echoed by Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush and expert in opposition research, who is now the host of “The Bulwark Podcast.” After taping an episode in front of the audience, he told CNN he believed the Biden campaign should court voters who feel they no longer have a home in the Republican Party: “They’re gonna need our people.”

That mission got harder after Biden’s debate performance, he said. “”He should step down unless he can dramatically upgrade his performance and demonstrate he is up for the job.”

Sarah Longwell, a former Republican strategist and publisher of The Bulwark, added: “The stakes are too high not to consider all options available.”

The Never Trumpers and Never Again Trumpers who met in Denver still have the same goal – anyone but Trump in the White House. But they’re now waiting to see if they will be faced with voting for Biden or someone else.

“Stopping Trump is the number one issue – with or without Biden,” Ivancie said. “There are certainly capable people in his stead, should he not decide to run, that I think could be a powerful contrast to Trump.”

Hawkland said the debate followed by the Supreme Court’s decision on presidential immunity was like “all the dominoes are falling one after the other.”

“It’s hard not to feel hopeless,” she added. “I feel like we’re in some kind of strange vortex that we cannot get out of.”

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