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Poor Joe. The death watch has begun already.

One flawed debate showing and the headlines are brutal. Biden is toast, Biden fading, Biden slidin', Biden sinking fast.

The absolute front-runner for the Democratic nomination just a while ago is now portrayed as a stumblebum. Just one debate and there’s a spectre of doom, as one scribe phrased it, hanging over his candidacy.

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He’s being compared to Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate in 2016 who had the big name and the big money and flamed out to the tune of Donald Trump labelling him “low-energy Jeb.”

Are media outlets getting carried away? What are they going to say when the next debate comes along in a few weeks and low-energy Joe, having been given his wake-up call, wakes up and performs better (as he likely will) while rival candidate Kamala Harris, with expectations so high, doesn’t fulfill them?

Leading presidential candidates often have a bad debate and recover. Barack Obama suffered a beatdown in his first debate against Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign but improved significantly the next time out. Same with Ronald Reagan following his feckless first performance against Walter Mondale in 1984. In 2016, Donald Trump was judged to be the loser in all debates against Hillary Clinton but won the election.

But having performed terribly in two previous presidential runs, in 1988 and 2008, Mr. Biden comes by the doomed scenarios honestly. That he responded so ineffectively to a question from Ms. Harris about his record on busing fed into preconceptions about him.

He surely knew the query was coming. He could have retaliated with a thrust that put the issue to rest. To wit: “I hate racism, Ms. Harris. I hate segregation. I suggest you look at my record with Barack Obama. I suggest you look at my support in the black community. You have nothing to teach me on this issue.”

He’s been unable to move the focus away from his old political history, in good part because he’s had little that is new to say. In Iowa on Thursday, he expressed frustration over it.

“This is kind of a new thing, you know, we’re going back 40 or 50 years now to a vote. I’m not going to go back and talk about the record of anyone from 10, 20, 30 years ago,” he said. “Everything is lost in context.”

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Maybe so. But a skilled campaigner changes the context, frames the debate. Mr. Biden by contrast has been on the defensive since day one. That is deadly.

But the campaign is in its infancy. The presidential primaries are almost seven months away. The Democratic convention is a year from now. Categorical assessments are premature.

There was no way Mr. Biden was going to maintain the commanding lead he held going into this race. The numbers had to come down. After the debate last week Mr. Biden dropped badly in some polls, marginally in others. His polling average was 32 per cent going in. In the first five national polls after the debate, it was down to 28 per cent. Bad, though hardly devastating.

The other old candidate in the race, Bernie Sanders, should be worried as much, if not more, than Mr. Biden. With the striking performance of Ms. Harris and the good showing by Elizabeth Warren, the Vermont senator fell from second to fourth place in two national surveys after the debate. Everything he says sounds like a repeat. Other candidates on the left, such as Ms. Warren, have a bolder, fresher message.

While Mr. Biden dominates the moderate wing of the party more so than Mr. Sanders leads the left, the hold is perilous. Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is as intelligent and as articulate as anyone in the race. He represents generational change. Toe-to-toe against Joe, he could batter him the way Ms. Harris did.

Mr. Biden’s strong support in the black community is threatened by Ms. Harris. Among women, he is vulnerable because of her and Ms. Warren and because of his brush with the #MeToo movement.

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Though it is too early for spectre of doom talk, the obstacles pile up. Joe Biden looks old, sounds old, is old. To prevail he needs a change of gears, a reset – something, anything, to extricate his identity from its bygone era.

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