PHILADELPHIA — John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz sparred over abortion, fracking and other hot-button issues during their Senate debate Tuesday night, with the Democrat who suffered a stroke more than five months ago struggling at times to effectively communicate — missing words, pausing awkwardly and speaking haltingly.
The event, the first and only time Oz and Fetterman will spar one-on-one, was billed as the most closely watched midterm debate in the country this year. Pennsylvania’s Senate race, which could determine the balance of power in the chamber, has narrowed to a coin flip with Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, ahead of Oz, a celebrity doctor, by only 1 to 2 percentage points in polling averages.
During the debate, Oz repeatedly sidestepped a question about whether he would support a proposed 15-week federal abortion ban. He insisted his position was clear, however, saying “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”
Fetterman, meanwhile, said he wants Roe v. Wade to be the law of the land.
“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 is should be the law. He celebrated when Roe v. Wade went down and my campaign would fight for Roe v. Wade and if given the opportunity, to codify it into law.”
The stakes were high for both parties on Tuesday night. The open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, which is currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, is seen as Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity. If Republicans fail to keep it in their column, it will become much more difficult for them to win back control of the Senate.
Going into the debate, Oz faced questions about alleged animal abuse, his abortion position, and a report that former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Oz and has campaigned for him, told advisers he needed the Republican in office in the event the 2024 election is challenged.
The debate marked the first time that voters were able to watch Fetterman unscripted on live television for a full hour since he suffered from his stroke in May, just days before the state’s primary. Fetterman relied on closed captioning during the debate so that he could follow the conversation as he continues to recover from auditory and speech difficulties.
Those difficulties were on display during the debate, with Fetterman sometimes struggling to complete sentences, stumbling over words and pausing altogether. Fetterman’s allies said ahead of the debate that he might pause occasionally due to the closed-captioning process, which has a delay.
Fetterman and Oz went toe-to-toe over fracking, a method of extracting natural gas that employs tens of thousands of people in Pennsylvania.
Asked by moderators about his changing positions on the issue — Fetterman now supports fracking, after previously backing a moratorium on new fracking in his unsuccessful 2016 Senate bid — Fetterman misleadingly said “I’ve always supported fracking.”
He later said, “I do support fracking and I don’t, I don’t — I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.”
Oz cast Fetterman’s position as extreme: “The energy industry is living in fear of John Fetterman.”
While Oz repeatedly argued that Fetterman was too far left, Fetterman often used his talking point that, “It’s the Oz rule — he’s on TV and he’s lying.”
Fetterman and Oz were asked if they would get behind President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, respectively, if they had a rematch in 2024.
Oz said “I’ll support whoever the Republican Party puts up,” later stating “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president.” Fetterman said that if Biden “does choose to run, I would absolutely support him.”
Oz also attacked Fetterman over an incident in 2013 in which, while mayor of Braddock, he pulled a shotgun on an unarmed Black man who he thought might be running from a shooting. Fetterman has said he didn’t know the race or gender of the person at the time.
“There’s one person on this stage who’s broken the law we believe,” Oz said. “Why haven’t you apologized?”
As he has in the past, Fetterman said that Braddock is a majority-Black town, which understood his “split-second decision to defend our community.”
Fetterman has said that he is 100 percent capable of serving in the U.S. Senate, that he has no cognitive impairments and that his health is continuing to improve. He has also argued that he has been transparent about his condition, making the case that his rallies and interviews with reporters provide voters with a firsthand look at his recovery.
Last week, Fetterman released a letter from his primary doctor, Clifford Chen, who said that he “spoke intelligently without cognitive deficits” and that he “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.” Chen said that Fetterman’s speech was “normal” but “he continues to exhibit symptoms of an auditory processing disorder which can come across as hearing difficulty.”
In June, Fetterman disclosed another letter from his cardiologist, which said that “if he takes his medications, eats healthy, and exercises, he’ll be fine.”
During the debate, Fetterman again declined to pledge to release his medical records surrounding his stroke and said that his doctor believes he is fit to serve.
Fetterman’s aides were not fully forthcoming about his condition in the immediate aftermath of his health setback. They did not announce that he had a stroke for two days, and it wasn’t until June that they revealed he had a previously undisclosed heart condition.
Since then, Fetterman’s campaign has not allowed reporters to interview his doctors and has been reluctant to release his medical records. But Fetterman has acknowledged that he sometimes mushes words together and has difficulty understanding words spoken by others due to an auditory processing disorder.
At the debate, people transcribed the conversation in real time to provide closed captions to Fetterman, which allowed him to read the moderators’ questions and Oz’s responses on a screen. The moderators told the audience about the accommodations at the beginning of the debate, and the closed captioning screens were visible at times during the event. Both Fetterman and Oz could see the captions.
Oz pushed for more debates, and for them to be held earlier. Amid pressure from media outlets to commit to debates, Fetterman announced in early September that he would participate in one debate with Oz.
In 2016, Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty squared off at two debates, the first of which was held on Oct. 17. Republicans have said that this year’s debates should have been scheduled before then because no-excuse mail voting is now legal in the state.
Underscoring how critical Pennsylvania is to the GOP’s path back to the majority, the top Senate Republican super PAC last week canceled nearly $6 million in ad reservations in New Hampshire — and on Tuesday, groups tied to the PAC said they would invest nearly the same amount of money in Keystone State.
Prior to Tuesday, Fetterman’s campaign and his allies worked for weeks to lower expectations. In a memo sent to reporters on Monday, Fetterman’s campaign manager Brendan McPhillips and adviser Rebecca Katz quoted a news article that said he “wasn’t great” at debates even before his stroke.
“We’ll admit – this isn’t John’s format,” they wrote, adding that Oz “clearly comes into Tuesday night with a huge built-in advantage.”
During the Democratic Senate primary, Fetterman was widely seen as less polished in debates than his top opponents, though he had no major stumbles during them.
Before the debate, Democrats said privately that they thought that Fetterman could benefit from lowered expectations due to his health condition and Oz’s campaign casting him as unfit to serve. Republican activists have also circulated videos on social media highlighting Fetterman’s verbal stumbles.
After the debate, some Democrats privately questioned why Fetterman agreed to the debate at all.
Fetterman spoke with POLITICO for about 17 minutes in September via Google Meet, during which he used closed captioning. He missed some words, but talked at a normal pace and answered a number of questions on a range of different topics.
In recent weeks, Fetterman has ramped up his campaign schedule and given longer speeches at his rallies, a contrast from the summer, when he did not hold public events for months while recovering from his stroke.
Some Republicans tried to raise expectations in the days before the debate. Stephen Miller, the former Trump White House adviser, said on Twitter ahead of the event that anything “less than 10/10 from JF is a giant fail,” pointing to his time in office and use of closed captioning.
The debate was hosted by ABC27 and held in Harrisburg in a studio with no audience.
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