fetterman-and-oz-face-off-in-highly-anticipated-debate

By MARC LEVY and STEVE PEOPLES Associated Press

Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman wouldn’t commit to releasing his full medical records during a highly anticipated debate against Republican Mehmet Oz on Tuesday, speaking haltingly throughout the hourlong event more than five months after experiencing a stroke.

Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s 53-year-old lieutenant governor, has acknowledged that he “almost died” after suffering a stroke in May. On Tuesday night, he addressed what he called the “elephant in the room.”

“I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” Fetterman said of his Republican opponent. “And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down and I’m going to keep coming back up.”

He also quickly tried to go on offense by attacking Oz’s “gigantic mansions” and his integrity.

“It’s the Oz rule: he’s on TV and he’s lying,” Fetterman said.

Oz, a celebrity heart surgeon, ignored his opponent’s health throughout the debate, though he has hammered Fetterman on the issue repeatedly during the campaign. On Tuesday night, Oz attacked Fetterman’s policies on crime, saying he is “trying to get as many murderers out of jail as possible.”

“These radical positions extend beyond crime,” Oz charged. He later added, “His extreme positions have made him untenable.”

Fetterman insisted he is prepared for the demands of the Senate as he continues to recover from the stroke. Independent experts consulted by The Associated Press said he appears to be recovering remarkably well. He used closed-captioning during the debate to help him process the words he hears.

Stroke rehabilitation specialist Dr. Sonia Sheth, who watched the debate, called Fetterman an inspiration to stroke survivors.

“In my opinion, he did very well,” said Sheth of Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Chicago. “He had his stroke less than one year ago and will continue to recover over the next year. He had some errors in his responses, but overall he was able to formulate fluent, thoughtful answers.”

Problems with auditory processing do not mean someone also has cognitive problems, the experts agreed. The brain’s language network is different from regions involved in decision making and critical thinking.

While debates have rarely swayed elections in the modern era, the intense national interest in the primetime affair — particularly in Fetterman’s performance — suggested this debate could prove decisive in an election central to the Democrats’ urgent fight to retain their Senate majority.

For Democrats, there is no better pickup opportunity in the U.S. than the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in a state Biden narrowly carried in 2020.

For much of the year, it looked as if Fetterman was the clear favorite, especially as Republicans waged a nasty nomination battle that left the GOP divided and bitter. But as Election Day nears, the race has tightened. And now, just two weeks before the final votes are cast, even the White House is privately concerned that Fetterman’s candidacy is at risk.

Voting is already well underway across the state. As of Tuesday, 639,000 votes had already been cast.

Fetterman’s speech challenges were apparent throughout the night. He often struggled to complete sentences.

When pressed to explain his shifting position on fracking, his answer was particularly awkward.

“I do support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t. I support fracking, and I stand and I do support fracking,” he said.

At another point, the moderator seemed to cut off Fetterman as he struggled to finish an answer defending Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness programs. He also stumbled before finishing a key attack line: “We need to make sure that Dr. Oz and Republicans believe in cutting Medicare and Social Security …”

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The Pennsylvania Senate hopefuls faced each other inside a Harrisburg television studio. No audience was allowed, and the the debate host, Nexstar Media, declined to allow an AP photographer access to the event.

The meeting was the first and only major statewide debate this year in Pennsylvania, since Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano couldn’t reach an agreement on terms for a gubernatorial debate.

Fetterman is a star in progressive politics nationwide, having developed a loyal following thanks in part to his blunt working-class appeal, extraordinary height, tattoos and unapologetic progressive policies. On Tuesday, the 6-foot-9-inch Democrat swapped his trademark hoodie and shorts for a dark suit and tie.

But Fetterman’s health has emerged as a central issue over the election’s final weeks, even as candidates elsewhere clash over issues like abortion, crime and inflation.

Oz had pushed for more than a half-dozen debates, suggesting that Fetterman’s unwillingness to agree to more than one is because the stroke had debilitated him. Fetterman insisted that one debate is typical — although two is more customary — and that Oz’s focus on debates was a cynical ploy to lie about his health.

Democrats noted that the televised debate setting likely would have favored Oz even without questions about the stroke.

Oz is a longtime television personality who hosted “The Dr. Oz Show” weekdays for 13 seasons after getting his start as a regular guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2004. Fetterman, by contrast, is a less practiced public speaker who is introverted by nature.

“This was always going to be an away game for John Fetterman,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic political consultant based in Philadelphia.

Fetterman asked for, and was granted, a closed-captioning system for the debate that displayed in writing everything said on a large screen behind the moderators.

The Fetterman campaign said in a memo ahead of the debate that the closed captioning would be “typed out by human beings in real time, on live TV,” warning that it could lead to time delays, transcription errors and miscommunication. “It is impossible to control and unavoidable,” the memo said.

Abortion was a major dividing line during the debate.

Oz insists he supports three exceptions — for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. When pressed on Tuesday night, he suggested he opposes South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill to impose a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks because it would allow the federal government to dictate the law to states.

“I’m not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do,” Oz said.

Fetterman said he would vote for Democrats’ legislation in Congress to allow abortion for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. He also has said separately that he does not support imposing restrictions on abortion and prefers to leave it to women to decide.

“I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania: If you believe the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr. Oz that’s your choice. But if you believe that the choice for abortion belongs with you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman also raised questions about Oz’s residency, which has been a consistent theme throughout the campaign.

For much of the year, Fetterman has seized on Oz’s tenuous connections to the state in witty social media posts and media campaigns.

Oz was born in Ohio, was raised in Delaware and has lived in New Jersey for decades. In 2020, People magazine ran a feature on the New Jersey mansion that Oz and his wife Lisa “built from scratch 20 years ago.”

Later that year, Oz formally adopted a Pennsylvania address. And the next year, 2021, he launched his Senate campaign.

Meanwhile, questions about Fetterman’s physical and mental strength have persisted.

When pressed Tuesday night, Fetterman refused to say he would release his medical records.

“For me, transparency is about showing up,” he said.

Fetterman has consistently rebuffed calls to release medical records or let reporters question his doctors. Last week he released a note from his primary care physician, who wrote that Fetterman is recovering well, shows no cognitive effects and “can work full duty in public office.”

Fetterman’s campaign insists he is healthier than ever now that he is paying closer attention to his diet and daily exercise regimen of walking several miles a day. He is participating in regular sessions with a speech therapist and taking medication.

Fetterman sought to use his health challenges as a positive.

“My campaign is all about fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down,” he said.

Peoples reported from New York. AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson contributed from Washington state.

 

One hour with Fetterman and Oz: Key takeaways from their only debate

Fetterman’s performance reinforced questions about his recovery from a May stroke, while Oz gave an answer on abortion that the Democrat immediately seized on for future attacks.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz met Tuesday night for the only debate of what’s become perhaps the most important Senate race in the country this year — one that could determine partisan control of the chamber.

Recent independent polling has shown a tight race between Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, and Oz, a Republican doctor best known for his long-syndicated TV show.

A showdown like Tuesday’s, clips from which are sure to be played on local news and in paid TV ads in a state that already has seen tens of millions of dollars’ worth of political commercials, could move the race. Here’s what we learned after an hour — which involved a lot of shouting and rapid-fire answers — in Harrisburg:

Fetterman’s performance reinforced questions about his recovery from a May stroke

“Good night, everybody,” Fetterman said by way of introduction to viewers as he began his answer to the evening’s first question about what qualifies him to be a senator.

Fetterman then used much of his allotted 60 seconds to discuss what he called “the elephant in the room.”

“I had a stroke,” Fetterman said before he took a shot at Oz, whose campaign has made his health a central issue. “He’s never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate, smoosh two words together. It knocked me down, but I’m gonna keep coming back up.”

The debate actually began with a lengthy explanation of the closed-captioning system that allowed Fetterman, who also has auditory processing issues that linger after his stroke, to read questions and answers transcribed on a screen in real time. There were occasional pauses between questions to Fetterman and his answers to them. At one point, during a back-and-forth on education, Oz seemed to allude to Fetterman’s struggles.

“Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this,” Oz, a heart surgeon, said in a comment directed at Fetterman.

Under pressure from the moderators, Fetterman again declined to commit to release his medical records.

The hourlong debate was the most intense political test Fetterman has faced since the stroke, and his advisers sought Monday to lower expectations for his performance.

In the post-debate spin room Tuesday night, Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello faced repeated questions from reporters about Fetterman’s halting delivery and struggles with words. Calvello asserted that Fetterman did “pretty damn well.” Oz spokesperson Barney Keller pronounced it a “disaster” for Fetterman.

A Pennsylvania Democratic official, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about the party’s nominee, said the debate will “definitely not” sway any voters to Fetterman.

“But hopefully it doesn’t sway people the other way,” the official said. “In some ways, Fetterman might be helped by how polarized and tribal things are these days.”

Oz wants ‘local political leaders’ to be involved in determining when women can have abortions

Oz, who has said in the past that he believes abortion is murder at any stage of pregnancy, refused to offer a yes-or-no answer to questions about whether he’d support a federal ban on the procedure at 15 weeks. He instead said he opposes federal laws that could limit how states decide to approach abortion. But how he phrased the response immediately raised eyebrows.

“I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” Oz said. “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.”

After the debate, Fetterman’s campaign quickly seized on the “local political leaders” part.

“Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz’s radical belief that ‘local political leaders’ should have as much say over a woman’s abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors,” Calvello said in a statement. “After months of trying to hide his extreme abortion position, Oz let it slip on the debate stage on Tuesday. Oz belongs nowhere near the U.S. Senate, and suburban voters across Pennsylvania will see just how out-of-touch Oz is on this issue.”

Neither candidate owned up to his conflicting positions on fracking

The controversial and environmentally risky process to drill for natural gas is a huge local issue in Pennsylvania, and Fetterman and Oz have both signaled opposition to it in the past. They now cast themselves as proponents and didn’t own up to their flip-flops.

The segment on the topic was particularly brutal for Fetterman.

“I’ve always supported fracking,” he said at one point, before co-moderator Lisa Sylvester of WPXI in Pittsburgh pressed him about a 2018 interview in which he said he “never” did.

“I do support fracking, and, I don’t … I support fracking, and I stand and I do support fracking,” Fetterman responded when he was confronted with the answer from four years ago.

Oz similarly dodged or failed to offer clear answers about several other issues
Fetterman’s advisers, in a pre-emptive move to raise expectations for Oz and lower them for their candidate, predicted the TV doctor’s showmanship would come through. And Oz indeed offered crisp answers to many questions — but without actually answering them.

After Fetterman said he supports a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, Oz said he agreed the wage was too low and accused Fetterman of “shooting too low.”

But Oz talked around whether he supports a $15 federal minimum wage by arguing that “market forces” are driving up wages and vaguely suggesting that fracking in Pennsylvania would create “plenty of money to go around.”

Asked about promoting unproven medical treatments through his syndicated TV show, Oz instead answered a question that wasn’t asked and denied directly selling such products.

“It’s a television show, like this is a television show,” Oz said. “So people can run commercials on the shows, and that’s a perfectly appropriate and very transparent process.”

The crime issue isn’t going away for Fetterman
Many of the ads aired by Oz and national groups over the last few months have focused on Fetterman’s stance on criminal justice issues.

In the debate’s early minutes, Oz noted how he invited Maureen Faulkner, the widow of a Philadelphia police officer who was shot in the 1980s and has been critical of Fetterman, to accompany him to the debate. Oz used her presence to underscore what he has called Fetterman’s “extreme” positions, including leniency for those convicted of second-degree murder.

Later in the debate, co-moderator Dennis Owens of WHTM in Harrisburg asked Fetterman to respond to the attacks that he’s soft on crime.

“I believe that I run on my record on crime,” Fetterman replied. “You know, I ran to be mayor [of Braddock, a small town near Pittsburgh] back in 2005 in order to fight gun violence, and that’s exactly what I did.”

At another point in the debate, Oz tried to turn Fetterman’s law-and-order narrative back on him by bringing up a years-old encounter in which Fetterman, during his time as mayor, chased down a Black jogger with a shotgun. Fetterman has said he heard what sounded like gunfire and saw a man running away. According to a police report, the man was unarmed.

“Why haven’t you apologized to that unarmed innocent Black man?” Oz asked Fetterman.

Fetterman replied that he had the “opportunity to defend our community as the chief law enforcement officer there” and asserted that an “overwhelming majority of the community,” including Black residents, “understood what happened.”

 

Fetterman, Showing Stroke Effects, Battles Oz in Hostile Senate Debate

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, tried to assure voters of his fitness to serve. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a former celebrity physician and Republican, attacked him as too radical for the job.

Five months after a stroke nearly took his life, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, clashed with Dr. Mehmet Oz on Tuesday in their one and only debate, disagreeing sharply over abortion, the economy and other partisan issues as Mr. Fetterman tried to assure voters of his fitness to serve.

Standing at red and blue lecterns in a television studio in Harrisburg, Pa., the two men could scarcely conceal their disdain for each other, or the scope of their disagreements. Dr. Oz returned repeatedly to the issue of crime while trying to position himself as a centrist candidate. Mr. Fetterman slashed Dr. Oz as a wealthy outsider unfamiliar with the economic struggles of Pennsylvanians.

The spectacle of the debate itself took on uncommon significance because of Mr. Fetterman’s stroke and the pace of his recovery. Mr. Fetterman sought to address the issue at the very start. “Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room: I had a stroke,” he said in his opening remarks, adding of his opponent, “He’ll never let me forget that.”

The debate was held under unusual conditions. Situated above the moderators were two 70-inch monitors to show the text of what was being said in close to real time — for both questions and answers. Professional typists were on hand to try to transcribe the debate as part of an agreed-upon accommodation for Mr. Fetterman, who has publicly discussed his lingering auditory processing issues after the stroke.

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Mr. Fetterman’s words were frequently halting, and it was apparent when he was delayed in either reading or reaching for a phrase or word. But he was also fluent enough over the course of the hour to present his Democratic vision for a state that could determine control of the Senate.

Dr. Oz, the Republican nominee and a former television personality, displayed a sharpness and comfort honed by years in front of the camera. And from the opening minutes, he seized the chance to tack to the political center, casting himself as a problem-fixing surgeon and labeling Mr. Fetterman repeatedly as a radical.

“Washington keeps getting it wrong with extreme positions: I want to bring civility, balance,” said Dr. Oz, who won the Republican primary largely on the strength of an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump.

In the primary, Dr. Oz fully embraced Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform. But he has revised his pitch for the general election, saying he wanted “Washington to be civil again” and to be the “candidate for change.” He did say he would support Mr. Trump again in 2024.

Mr. Fetterman pounded Dr. Oz as an out-of-state phony with 10 homes. Dr. Oz criticized Mr. Fetterman as a soft-on-crime liberal who lived off his parents into his 40s.

“John Fetterman thinks the minimum wage is his weekly allowance from his parents,” Dr. Oz said at another point.

At least once, Dr. Oz seemed to condescend about Mr. Fetterman’s auditory issues. “Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this,” he said.

Mr. Fetterman was able to reel off some made-for-TV one-liners, though he had difficulty going into greater depth over the course of full one-minute answers.

In defending his record on crime, Mr. Fetterman invoked his time as mayor of Braddock, a small town outside Pittsburgh: “I was able to stop gun violence for five and a half years as mayor — ever accomplished before since my time as mayor because I’m the only person on this stage right now that is — can successful about pushing back against gun violence and being the community more safe.”

Republicans quickly clipped and posted a verbal flub of Mr. Fetterman saying, “I do not believe in supporting the Supreme Court,” as he spoke about his opposition to court expansion.

Pennsylvania, one of the central battlegrounds for control of the Senate, is increasingly seen as a potential tipping-point state. On Tuesday, the leading Senate Republican super PAC announced it was adding $6 million to its television reservations in the state. The top Democratic super PAC had put a further $5 million into the state last week.

“We believe if we win Pennsylvania, we win the majority,” said Steven Law, who leads the Republican super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund.

The evening unfolded with an intensity befitting the stakes.

Some of the most pointed exchanges came over abortion, which has featured prominently in Democratic advertising.

Dr. Oz said that there should be no role for the federal government on the issue but that he was open to state-level restrictions. He even tried awkwardly to come up with a new phrase to describe having state governments determine abortion rights, saying that he wanted the decision left to “women, doctors, local political leaders.”

Mr. Fetterman later interrupted to link Dr. Oz to the Republican nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, who is trailing significantly in most polls and who has spoken about banning abortion beginning at six weeks with no exceptions. “You roll with Doug Mastriano!” Mr. Fetterman said.

The Democrat said he supported the framework of Roe v. Wade, as Dr. Oz pressed him for details about any limits he would impose on late-term pregnancies.

A blitz of commercials this fall about crime has helped Dr. Oz shrink what had been a summer lead in the polls for Mr. Fetterman. On Tuesday, crime was the first specific issue that Dr. Oz raised, and the final one he included in his closing remarks.

“I’ve talked to families who won’t let their kids go outside because of the crime wave that’s been facilitated by left, radical policies like the ones John Fetterman has been advocating for,” the Republican said.

Mr. Fetterman replied, “I run on my record on crime.”

For much of the evening, Dr. Oz was on the offensive, though he appeared less comfortable when it came to questions of how he has profited in the past from the sale and promotion of unproven medical treatments through his daytime TV show.

“The show did very well because it provided high-quality information that empowered people,” Dr. Oz said. When the moderator followed up to ask about his own profits, Dr. Oz did not answer directly, saying advertisers were entitled to run commercials during his show.

“I never sold weight-loss products as described in those commercials,” he declared. “It’s a television show like this is a television show.”

The two men also clashed over immigration.

“Pennsylvania is already a border state,” Dr. Oz said, accusing Mr. Fetterman, who has pushed for the legalization of marijuana, of wanting to legalize even more drugs.

Mr. Fetterman responded that Dr. Oz was affiliated with a company that was once fined for hiring people who were in the country illegally. “I believe that a secure border is — can be compatible with compassion,” Mr. Fetterman said.

Another key issue in Pennsylvania is fracking, the extraction of the state’s abundant natural gas from deep in the ground. Mr. Fetterman was once opposed to the practice, but supports it now. But when Mr. Fetterman was confronted with his past opposition, he struggled to answer. “I’ve always supported fracking,” he insisted.

It was not always clear a debate would happen.

The Oz team had needled Mr. Fetterman over the summer for failing to commit to any debates, but seemed to face some backlash for the focus on his health. The Fetterman campaign eventually agreed to the single debate late in October, trying to give the lieutenant governor as long as possible to recover.

Mr. Fetterman had the stroke on the Friday before the May primary election, though he waited until that Sunday to disclose it. On Primary Day, he had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted. His campaign initially offered few details about his condition, saying in early June that he also had a serious heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

Mr. Fetterman stayed off the campaign trail until mid-August. He has since ramped up his activity, regularly holding rallies and giving television interviews. Before the debate, he released a letter from his primary care doctor that said he had “no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”

Mr. Fetterman was pressed by the moderators to release his full medical records. He declined. “To me, for transparency is about showing up,” he said.

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