Democratic Senate hopeful John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, struggled to get his words out as he debated GOP nominee Mehmet Oz in Tuesday night’s debate ahead of a pivotal election for the Pennsylvania post. Oz spoke at lightning speed, as if he were trying to cram a campaign season’s worth of shots at his opponent into 60 seconds.
But both managed to let Keystone State voters know how utterly unqualified they thought their opponent was to serve in the world’s greatest deliberative body. Often failing to answer direct – and repeated – questions from the debate moderators on issues, both Fetterman and Oz used their brief time behind the debate microphone to accuse the other of lying, extremism and poor character.
Both had missions to accomplish in the debate: Fetterman, who is leading slightly in polls but has seen his edge over Oz shrink in recent weeks, had to show that his stroke would not make him unable to do the job of a US senator. While Fetterman was able to voice some biting attacks on Oz, he indeed stammered and mashed words together, a symptom of his stroke.
“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He never let me forget that,” Fetterman said in the early minutes of the debate, referring to the Oz campaign’s criticism of Fetterman’s health. He acknowledged he would miss some words during the debate.
Fetterman, who is Pennsylvania’s sitting lieutenant governor, said his stroke knocked him down but that he will “keep coming back up,” as he vowed to help fellow Pennsylvanians do.
Sometimes Fetterman hesitated before responding – a few seconds that might be insignificant in conversation but seemed like an eternity in a high-stakes debate. It was impossible to tell if Fetterman was collecting his thoughts or merely reading from the monitor both campaigns had agreed to allow so Fetterman could more easily comprehend the questions. His doctor has explained that Fetterman does not have cognitive problems but just difficulty in expressing things in words.
Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and first-time candidate who has been attacked as a shady TV doctor, needed to convince Pennsylvanians that he was a serious policy man with a sincere dedication to Pennsylvania, despite being a recent transplant to the state. Oz delivered smooth answers but avoided questions about his endorsements of questionable health remedies.
Asked directly if he profited from promoting unproven health supplements on his television show, Oz declined to answer directly, saying, “It’s a television show, like this is a television show,” referring to the debate. He then pivoted the health question to accuse Fetterman of being for “socialized” medicine, a charge Fetterman denied.
The single debate between Fetterman and Oz was the only chance voters had to see the two men head to head. Fetterman leads slightly and got a boost Tuesday with the announcement by Everett Stern, the independent candidate drawing about 3% support in polls, that he was withdrawing from the race and endorsing Fetterman.
But early voting is already underway and, as of Tuesday afternoon, more than 555,000 Pennsylvanians had cast ballots.
Neither man Tuesday night answered a question about why they now support fracking, a process of getting natural gas out of the earth, after both previously came out against the process environmentalists oppose.
Neither had a strong answer on reducing government spending. Fetterman flipped the question to inflation and its impact on working families – a phrase he used to then attack Oz as an out-of-touch rich man who “has 10 gigantic mansions.” Oz said the government needed to get rid of what he said was 4% waste in the federal budget.
On abortion, Oz accused Fetterman of being “radical,” supporting abortion right before birth and forcing American taxpayers to foot the bill. Fetterman – who frequently referred to “the Oz rule: If he’s on TV, he’s lying” – denied that and said he believed Roe v. Wade should be codified into law. But Fetterman did not, as asked by the moderator, say what restrictions on abortion he would accept.
Oz was asked three times if he would support a measure by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to ban abortion nationally at 15 weeks. He refused to give a yes-or-no answer, saying he thought the matter should be left to the states.
Abortion ahould be left to “a woman, her doctor and local political leaders,” Oz said. Fetterman’s campaign announced less than two hours after the debate that they would use that line in an ad against Oz on Wednesday.
On immigration, Fetterman struggled to find his words before saying that he believed secure borders could be “compatible with compassion.” But when it came to directing the issue at his opponent’s party, Fetterman was brutal in slamming Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ scheme to fly migrants north – in some cases without their full and knowing acceptance.
“I don’t ever recall in the Statue of Liberty did they say, you know, ‘Take our tired huddled masses and put them on a bus and use cheap political stunts about them.’ I believe we have to develop a comprehensive and bipartisan solution for immigration,” Fetterman said.
The attacks got personal as well. Oz both slammed Fetterman for crime while also demanding he apologize for pointing a gun at “an unarmed, innocent Black man,” a reference to a 2013 incident when Fetterman was mayor of Braddock and stopped a jogger, he told police, after hearing shots fired .
Fetterman took every chance to cast Oz as a New Jersey resident who lived with his in-laws to establish residency in Pennsylvania so he could run for the seat. When Oz accused Fetterman of being close to Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont, Fetterman turned it back against him.
“He keeps talking about Bernie Sanders. You know, three years ago, he was on his show, and he hugged him, and he said, ‘I love this guy.’ Why don’t you pretend you live in Vermont instead of Pennsylvania and run against Bernie Sanders,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman closed by promising to fight for “anyone in Pennsylvania who got knocked down.” Oz, who, like Fetterman, spent much of the debate slamming his opponent, called for civility and unity.