President Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday, NBC News projects, winning a majority of the necessary delegates and setting up what is expected to be a bitter, closely contested rematch with Donald Trump.

The outcome had never been much in doubt. Biden faced token opposition as the party’s biggest names — Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, among them — opted to sit out the race rather than challenge a sitting president who had already beaten Trump once.

By clearing the field for the 81-year-old Biden, Democrats have gambled that he remains the party’s best shot at defeating Trump one more time. The November election will help determine whether that bet pays off. Some party activists have their doubts.

“He [Biden] was forced on us by the establishment, but he is manifestly not the same man that he was even three years ago, and that has made him less optimally fit for the office, if not simply unfit,” Liano Sharon, a Democratic National Committee member from Michigan, said in an interview.

The general election campaign opens with Biden an underdog against an opponent who historians have ranked as the worst president in the nation’s history.

Age remains Biden’s glaring vulnerability, polling shows. His State of the Union speech last week was a chance to reassure voters about his fitness, and his performance may have quelled some of voters’ misgivings. Biden delivered his 68-minute speech with unusual brio, seizing opportunities to go off script and parry Republicans who booed him throughout.

“They [the Biden campaign team] got one of the most impressive opportunities at a reset with the State of the Union,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans.

Biden’s challenge now, eight months before the general election, is to energize Democratic and independent voters who largely don’t credit him for the strong economy and a string of bipartisan bills he ushered through Congress.

A thorny new political problem is the fallout from the war between Israel and Hamas. Biden’s stalwart support for Israel has left his party divided. Rather than reward him with another term, some Democrats in Michigan and other battleground states are considering leaving the top of the ballot blank because of a war that has killed more than 30,000 people in Gaza.

Touting his own record has done little to revive Biden’s sluggish approval ratings. Democratic allies want to see Biden attack Trump at every turn, warning that the former president poses a threat to the country’s democratic society and, at 77, is hardly an inspiring, fresh-faced alternative for voters who fear Biden is too old.

Biden seems eager to comply. He gave a preview of forthcoming attacks in his State of the Union speech. Eschewing a unifying message, he referred more than a dozen times to “my predecessor.”

“Biden has to go after Trump hammer and tong and he has to be constant about it,” former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in an interview.

Though the Democratic primary season was largely a coronation, Biden’s victory figures to be something he will savor. He has lost more presidential races than he has won. As he aged, the Oval Office seemed ever more out of reach. He ran for the party’s nomination in 1988 and again in 2008 and never made headway with rank-and-file Democratic voters.

Grieving over his son Beau’s death, he decided not to run in the 2016 campaign, having served eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. Even if he had opted to enter that race, Obama and his political team had made clear their preferred candidate was Hillary Clinton, not Biden.

Biden lost badly in the first few contests of the 2020 cycle before mounting a comeback in South Carolina and reviving a campaign that looked to have flat-lined.

Through sheer persistence, he is now finishing a presidential term while wrapping up his second party nomination in a row. Neither Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Edward M. Kennedy or many of Biden’s other peers ever got as far.

“Nobody ever told me a life in politics and public service would be easy; like life, I never expected politics to be free of disappointment or heartache,” Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad. “But I have always believed it was worth the effort.”

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