Former President Donald Trump waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, on June 28, 2024.
CNN  — 

As nerves grew in the lead-up to the first general election debate of the cycle, some close to Donald Trump considered whether the former president might announce his running mate from the stage or shortly thereafter, should the evening take an unfavorable turn.

The wild-card scenario was one of several ideas for post-debate distractions batted around by Trump allies still rattled from the Republican’s uncontrolled first debate appearance in 2020. But that card would ultimately be left in the deck.

Rather than managing fallout over Trump’s performance at Thursday’s event, the former president and his team now face an unexpected challenge: keeping the attention on President Joe Biden while navigating a busy sprint to next month’s Republican National Convention, a time during which Trump will be sentenced for his felony convictions and must pick a running mate. The confidence-shattering struggles of the 81-year-old incumbent have swallowed up the post-debate discourse, and the Democratic hand-wringing over the presumptive nominee’s capacity to fight on threatens to overshadow Biden’s campaign for the foreseeable future.

Taking a victory lap from a rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, on Friday, Trump called Biden “grossly incompetent” while poking fun at the president’s weeklong debate prep at Camp David.

“He studied so hard that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” Trump said.

Behind the scenes, Trump’s advisers are plotting how best to wield Biden’s underwhelming display to maximum effect in hopes of shifting momentum in a race unmoved for months by external forces. Asked whether clips of Biden from Thursday night would make their way into upcoming ads, Trump campaign manager Chris LaCivita told Fox News: “Duh.”

Trump offered a deeper glimpse into their thinking at Friday’s campaign stop, limiting his attacks on Biden’s appearance and insisting his opponent’s age wasn’t a factor in the outcome of the debate. The remarks in Virginia closely aligned with the messaging that allies have urged Trump to adhere to as the candidates inch closer to November.

“No amount of rest or rigging could help him defend his atrocious record,” Trump said. “It’s not defensible.”

Yet, even as he seeks to keep the spotlight on Biden’s debate shortcomings, Trump is also entering a critical three-week stretch full of potential race-defining moments that could further alter the stakes of the election.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court is expected to decide whether the former president has absolute immunity from crimes he may have committed while in office. The ruling could determine the fate of special counsel Jack Smith’s case against Trump on election subversion charges.

Trump’s team celebrated the legal and political implications of a separate ruling Friday from the high court that determined federal prosecutors overstepped by charging hundreds of January 6, 2021, rioters with obstruction – an allegation Smith has also levied against the former president. Though unlikely to significantly alter Trump’s case, Trump’s team plans to campaign on the decision to bolster his baseless claims that Biden’s Department of Justice is targeting his Republican predecessor and his supporters.

Then, on July 11, Trump is scheduled to be sentenced for the 34 felony convictions handed to him last month by a Manhattan jury. The judge in the case has discretion to hit the former president with a range of punishments, from community service and probation to fines and even jail time.

The Republican convention in Milwaukee will kick off a mere four days later. And at some point before Trump accepts his party’s nomination there on July 18, he will also have to choose a running mate, a decision made less urgent – though no less momentous – by Thursday’s debate.

Leveraging these moments presents opportunities for Trump to seize media coverage beyond the debate and further bolster his campaign coffers.

Before the debate had even ended, Trump’s campaign sent supporters a text message declaring he had “obliterated” Biden along with a link to purchase new apparel. In the hours after Trump left the stage, his team has contemplated how to continue cashing in as they relish in the Democratic panic over Biden’s appearance.

Trump’s campaign also anticipates next month’s sentencing will bring another wave of donations related to his legal troubles after he raised more than $50 million online in the 24 hours following his conviction, eroding Biden’s cash advantage. The GOP convention, traditionally a defining political and financial marker in presidential campaigns, is expected to bring in more as well.

That has left the question of when to unveil his pick for vice president.

Trump’s top advisers were dismissive of speculation that an announcement could come during debate week.

However, those same people have argued that Trump may make his selection before the convention, with some telling CNN they expect it’s more likely than not that his decision comes earlier than his self-imposed timeframe of announcing his choice in Milwaukee.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that this decision would come before the convention,” one Trump ally said. “They want to fundraise the hell out of this announcement, and picking a VP is in and of itself its own moment.”

Democrats, meanwhile, appear eager to shift the conversation from the debate to the looming Republican veepstakes.

The party has spent weeks poring over the backgrounds of the potential contenders, publicizing their past positions on abortion and splicing up clips of their previous criticism of Trump.

After Thursday’s event, the Democratic National Committee blasted one of the leading contenders for the job, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, for defending Trump’s repeated refusal to say he would accept the November election results. Burgum, in an interview with NBC from the debate spin room, repeated Trump’s conspiracies about the 2020 election.

“Just like the rest of Trump’s VP contenders, Burgum is ready and willing to push Trump’s dangerous attacks on our democracy and sell out our basic values as Americans if it helps him join Trump’s losing ticket in November,” DNC spokesperson Alex Floyd said in a statement.