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Bitter Rivals Biden and Trump Trade Blows in Fiery First Debate

A halting and stumbling President Joe Biden struggled to hold off a forceful offensive from his predecessor Donald Trump as the two traded personal insults in the fiery first debate of a razor-close presidential race.

The bombastic Trump lashed out at his successor, calling him a failure on the economy and the world stage. Biden sought to hit back, but his delivery was hesitant as he spoke rapidly in a soft, trailing-off voice and stumbled on his words several times.

It was the first debate ever between a president and former president – and each accused the other of being the worst in history. The 81-year-old Biden and the 78-year-old Trump, who were each the oldest president when first elected, even accused each other of being childlike as they argued over their golf swings.

The two did not shake hands as they walked to their podiums at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. There was no live audience and their microphones were muted as the other spoke – rules agreed as they open a campaign in a deeply polarized country.

Biden, who was reported to have a cold, hit Trump with clearly rehearsed lines as he sought to remind millions of television viewers that Trump would be the first convicted felon in the White House.

“Think of all the civil penalties you have. How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for, for molesting a woman in public,” Biden said, and “for having sex with a porn star on the night, while your wife was pregnant?”

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden added.

Trump, a veteran of rallies and reality television, spoke loudly as he rushed through a long list of complaints about Biden’s record, saying at one point, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Biden’s former communications director Kate Bedingfield acknowledged it “was a really disappointing debate performance” from the president.

The two clashed bitterly over the economy, with Biden attacking Trump’s economic record while the former president touted what he called the “greatest economy in the history of our country.”

They also locked horns over the world stage, with Trump accusing Biden of not helping Israel “finish the job” against Hamas and describing the withdrawal from Afghanistan as the “most embarrassing moment in the history of our country.”

Some Democratic supporters quickly voiced anxiety about Biden’s performance, with one attendee at a San Francisco watch party saying “I can’t understand a word that he says. Isn’t it sad?”

Historian Julian Zelizer said Biden’s supporters would be “extremely concerned” that he “fueled the basic perception that has continued to overshadow him.”

While the two front-runners sparred, one candidate not on the stage was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the member of the storied political dynasty who is running an anti-establishment campaign but failed to meet CNN’s standard of reaching 15 percent in four national polls.

Kennedy instead spent the 90 minutes of the Biden-Trump debate taking questions on a livestream.