John Fetterman’s performance was center stage in lone Pa. Senate debate against Mehmet Oz

Jonathan Tamari and Julia Terruso
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Democrat John Fetterman pledged to fight for working people but struggled at times to articulate his views during a high-stakes U.S. Senate debate Tuesday night, while Republican Mehmet Oz tried to claim the center lane politically but frequently dodged policy specifics.

Fetterman’s performance, answering live questions in 30- and 60-second responses on stage, though, is likely to be the most scrutinized part of a debate that has drawn national attention — both for the importance of the Pennsylvania campaign, and for the widespread focus on Fetterman’s recovery from a May stroke.

Fetterman appeared to be able to follow the debate and engage in the conversation, but he often struggled to elaborate on his answers. He spoke haltingly and at times mixed up words, something he has admitted is a lingering speech issue related to his stroke. Such communication challenges are common in stroke victims, but are not cognitive problems. He used closed captioning, visible to both candidates, to follow the questions and answers from Oz.

Republican Mehmet Oz, right, on a monitor in the media tent, next to a poster of Democrat John Fetterman, left, as the two U.S. Senate candidates hold their first and only debate, at the WHTM-TV/abc27 Studio in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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Fetterman several times returned to a theme of fighting for Pennsylvanians “who’ve been knocked down,” a clear echo of his own health challenges.

But amid a race that is essentially tied, and that could determine control of the U.S. Senate, Fetterman’s delivery could reinforce questions from Republicans about his ability to serve as a senator.

At one point, Fetterman was asked to explain his past criticism of fracking, an industry he now supports.

“I do support fracking,” Fetterman started, before halting, and then adding, “I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.”

Oz, meanwhile, refused to clearly say where he stood on a number of policy issues. He declined to say if he would have supported a bipartisan gun safety law signed this summer, and when asked about a $15 minimum wage said he believed wages should rise through the private sector, and that a mandatory wage increase would force businesses to close.

Asked about a proposal from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) to ban abortion after 15 weeks nationwide, Oz responded, “There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions.”

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But when pressed three times if that meant he was a yes or no on that bill, he declined to say.

“I want women, doctors, local political leaders living the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves,” Oz said.

Democrats pointed to Oz’s inclusion of “political leaders” in his list of who should decide on abortion, saying politicians shouldn’t have a say in women’s health care choices.

“If you believe that the choice for abortion belongs between you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,” Fetterman said. “Roe v. Wade, for me, should be the law.”

Oz did repeatedly call for more energy production, while trying to cast himself as the more centrist of the two options on stage — something Democrats say are belied by his positions on abortion, and his close embrace of former President Donald Trump.

For many voters, the debate was likely their only chance to see the candidates outside of those ads. It was also a rare chance to see them address specific policy issues amid a campaign that has largely focused on personalities and background — including Oz’s wealth and longtime New Jersey residency, and Fetterman’s health and support for clemency for long-serving, reformed criminals.

Much of the attention was on Fetterman’s health, in his first appearance taking live questions on television since his stroke. Republicans immediately said he was unfit for office.

Oz campaign strategist Barney Keller called the debate “a complete disaster,” for Fetterman.

”He wasn’t able to defend any of his radical positions, and it really showed,” Keller told reporters following the debate.

Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello said he thought Fetterman did better than in primary debates before his stroke.

“John Fetterman performed great tonight for a man who was in a hospital bed just several months ago,” Calvello said. “He put it all on the line and was transparent with the people of Pennsylvania, and he performed pretty damn well.”

Asked if agreeing to a rapid-fire format was wise, Calvello said, “It might not be, but the people of Pennsylvania deserve a debate, and we weren’t gonna complain. ... We came to roll with it, and we did pretty damn well.”

The only debate arrived with the race effectively tied heading into the final two weeks of campaigning. Oz has closed what was once a significant Fetterman lead, according to nearly every public poll, as both candidates and national parties pour millions of dollars into TV ads.

“Anyone watching today could tell there was only one person on that stage who can represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate: @droz,” tweeted Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), the incumbent who isn’t seeking reelection, and supports Oz. “It’s sad to see John Fetterman struggling so much. He should take more time to allow himself to fully recover.”

Countered Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), a Fetterman supporter, “@JohnFetterman has a clear record of public service and the empathy of a leader who understands this Commonwealth. He knows Pennsylvania, he cares about Pennsylvanians, and he’s going to be a great Senator.”

Oz had prodded Fetterman for debates starting in early September, but Fetterman, still recovering from his stroke, declined earlier dates.

Fetterman has acknowledged that he has auditory processing issues and sometimes stumbles over his words. His speaking has been much smoother in stump speeches on the campaign trail and in a recent interviews with The Inquirer than during the back and forth of Tuesday’s debate. Last week his primary care doctor released a note saying he “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”