• Biden delivers uneven performance under Trump's barrage of falsehoods at first debate

    Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican rival Donald Trump File photo Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican rival Donald Trump

    Democratic President Joe Biden delivered a shaky performance at Thursday's debate while his Republican rival Donald Trump battered him with a series of often false attacks, as the two oldest presidential candidates ever exchanged deeply personal insults ahead of November's US election.

    The two men traded barbs on abortion, immigration, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, their handling of the economy and even their golf games as they each sought to shake up what opinion polls show has been a virtually tied race for months.

    A hoarse-sounding Biden stumbled over his words on several occasions during the debate's first half-hour, but he found his footing at the halfway mark when he attacked Trump over his conviction for covering up hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, calling him a "felon."

    In response, Trump brought up the recent conviction of Biden's son, Hunter, for lying about his drug use to buy a gun.

    Moments later, Biden noted that almost all of Trump's former cabinet members, including former Vice President Mike Pence, have not endorsed his campaign.

    "They know him well, they served with him," he said. "Why are they not endorsing him?"

    Two White House officials said Biden had a cold. But his up-and-down evening could deepen voter concerns that the 81-year-old is too old to serve another four-year term. Some Democrats were already publicly fretting about Biden's uneven performance before the debate had even concluded.

    Trump, meanwhile, unleashed a barrage of criticisms, many of which were well-worn falsehoods he has long repeated on the campaign trail, including claims that migrants have carried out a crime wave, that Democrats support infanticide and that he actually won the 2020 election.

    Biden and Trump, 78, were both under pressure to display their fitness for office. Biden has been dogged by questions about his age and sharpness, while Trump's incendiary rhetoric and sprawling legal woes remain a vulnerability.

    Asked about the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, the former president refused to accept any responsibility and claimed that many of those arrested were innocent.

    "This guy has no sense of American democracy," Biden scoffed in response.

    Biden also blamed Trump for enabling the elimination of a nationwide right to abortion by appointing conservatives to the US Supreme Court, an issue that has bedeviled Republicans since 2022.

    Trump countered that Biden would not support any limits on abortions and said that returning the issue to the states was the right course of action.

    Trump said Biden had failed to secure the southern US border, ushering in scores of criminals.

    "I call it Biden migrant crime," he said.

    Biden replied, "Once again, he's exaggerating, he's lying."

    Studies show immigrants do not commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans.

    The televised clash on CNN was taking place far earlier than any modern presidential debate, more than four months before the November 5 Election Day.

    The two candidates appeared with no live audience, and their microphones automatically cut off when it was not their turn to speak - both atypical rules imposed to avoid the chaos that derailed their first debate in 2020, when Trump interrupted Biden repeatedly.

    The two men - who have made little secret of their mutual dislike - did not shake hands or acknowledge each other before or after the debate.

    But there were plenty more moments in which their bad blood was evident. Each called the other the worst president in history; Biden referred to Trump as a "loser" and a "whiner," while Trump called Biden a "disaster."

    At one point, the rivals bickered over their golf games, with Trump bragging about hitting the ball farther than Biden and Biden retorting that Trump would struggle to carry his own bag.

    Polarised nation

    The first questions focused on the economy, as polls show Americans are dissatisfied with Biden's performance despite wage growth and low unemployment.

    Biden acknowledged that inflation had driven prices substantially higher than at the start of his term but said he deserves credit for putting "things back together again" following the coronavirus pandemic.

    Trump asserted that he had overseen "the greatest economy in the history of our country" before the pandemic struck and said he took action to prevent the economic freefall from deepening even further.

    The debate took place at a time of profound polarization and deep-seated anxiety among voters about the state of American politics. Two-thirds of voters said in a May Reuters/Ipsos poll that they were concerned violence could follow the election, nearly four years after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol.

    Trump took the stage as a felon who still faces a trio of criminal cases, including to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The former president, who persists in falsely claiming his defeat was the result of fraud, has suggested he will punish his political enemies if returned to power, but he will need to convince undecided voters that he does not pose a mortal threat to democracy, as Biden asserts.

    Biden's challenge was to deliver a forceful performance after months of Republican assertions that his faculties have dulled with age.

    While national polls show a tied race, Biden has trailed Trump in polls of most battleground states that traditionally decide presidential elections. Just this month he lost his financial edge over Trump, whose fundraising surged after he was criminally convicted of trying to cover up hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.

    Neither Biden nor Trump is popular and many Americans remain deeply ambivalent about their choices. About a fifth of voters say they have not picked a candidate, are leaning toward a third-party candidate or may sit the election out, the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.

    The second and final debate in this year's campaign is scheduled for September.