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Never Trumpers are divided over whether Biden should get out of the race

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden will try to ease concerns about his readiness for a second term in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos today. The unscripted moments airing tonight take an outsized significance because of Biden's dismal debate performance last week. After joining a meeting with Biden and all the Democratic governors this week, Hawaii's Governor Josh Green told All Things Considered he believes Biden still hasn't made up his mind about whether to leave the race.

JOSH GREEN: The president has to make this decision with his lifelong colleagues from the Senate and his wife. Jill Biden is a superstar. They'll make the right decision.

FADEL: NPR senior political correspondent Mara Liasson has been monitoring the reactions from panicky Democrats and the polls. And she spoke with one group of political operatives with a very specific goal for 2024.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: They're called Never Trumpers, Republicans who sometimes at great personal and professional cost broke with their party because they believe Donald Trump is an existential threat to American democracy. Their goal in November is to defeat Trump, period. The Lincoln Project is the leading Never Trump super PAC. Right now, it has a simple message - suck it up, Democrats. Biden had a bad debate, but he didn't commit a crime like you know who.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK WILSON: No matter what happens with Joe Biden, no matter what he decides or what happens in the Democratic Party, you can never take your foot off the gas of attacking Donald Trump.

LIASSON: That was former Republican Rick Wilson in a video produced by the Lincoln Project. But behind the bravado, other Never Trumpers admit the debate has frustrated their efforts to convince Republicans to break with Trump. Olivia Troye, a former national security official in the Trump administration, says it's made her work three times as hard.

OLIVIA TROYE: Is it hard to sit down and have a conversation with someone when they're sitting there saying, but did you see how he was during that debate? Yes, it made it harder. All I'm saying is it didn't change my opinion of the danger that Trump is, but it certainly means that the next few months are going to be a harder road.

LIASSON: And other Never Trumpers say that the farther Biden falls behind, the harder it will be to convince Republican donors to withhold their support for Trump. On the question of whether it would be easier to defeat Trump with Biden as the nominee or someone else, Never Trumpers are divided. Jeff Timmer describes himself as a recovering Republican. He was the GOP state party chair of Michigan. Now he's a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project. He thinks changing candidates would be a mistake.

JEFF TIMMER: The Biden campaign will have to overcome the concerns that were exacerbated during that debate. Can they do it? I don't know. But I think history tells us if the Democrats stick with Biden, he might lose or he might win. If they switch horses, at least historically, when the party abandons their nominee or their incumbent in the White House, they lose and the election goes to the other party.

LIASSON: Sarah Longwell, a pollster and a Never Trumper, disagrees. She works with the Bulwark, another anti-Trump group. On "The Bulwark Podcast" last week, she said Biden should step aside.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE BULWARK PODCAST")

SARAH LONGWELL: Nobody could've beaten Donald Trump in 2020 other than Joe Biden. God bless him. Now he has got to do the right thing. He could step away and he could bless other candidates. And it would be unprecedented, but he could do it and they would beat Donald Trump.

LIASSON: But other Never Trumpers are not so sure that at this point any Democrat could prevail. The decision about Biden's fate is up to him, and it will depend on a lot of factors. Will Trump's post-debate poll bounce stick or fade away as debate bounces have in the past? And will the chorus of elected Democrats calling publicly for Biden to step aside keep growing? Regardless, the Never Trumpers will stay focused on just one thing, defeating Donald Trump in November.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.