The debate marked a new test in the Pennsylvania Senate race for Fetterman, who has appeared in public in much more controlled settings since suffering a stroke just before the Democratic primary that sometimes altered his speech and triggered symptoms. of an auditory processing disorder. according to the Democratic candidate and his doctor. Throughout the 60-minute debate, Fetterman’s speech paused, he mispronounced words and stumbled over sentences.
Fetterman sought to avoid a rocky debate from the very first question, appealing to viewers’ empathy for someone who is fighting back from a serious stroke. Oz, a former television personality, spoke at a fast pace, rushing her responses in a format that allowed only 60-second responses and 15- and 30-second rebuttals.
“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He never let me forget that,” Fetterman said, referring to his health and the questions Oz has raised about it. “And I might lose a few words during this debate, mix two words together, but he knocked me down, but I’m going to keep coming back. And this campaign is about, to me, fighting for all the people in Pennsylvania who were brought down, who need to get back up, and fighting for all the forgotten communities across Pennsylvania who were also brought down and who need to continue to get back up. up.”
Both candidates went on the defensive over politics, with Fetterman pressured by his previous opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fetterman said he supports fracking and always has; but moderators questioned why Fetterman in 2018 said he was “not at all supportive of fracking.”
Pressed several times for earlier comments that he did not support fracking, Fetterman said: “I support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t. I support fracking and I support, and do, fracking.”
Oz defended his years as host of “Dr. Oz,” where critics say he promoted dubious cures for weight loss and disease. “I never sold weight-loss products as described in those commercials,” Oz said, referring to Fetterman’s attack ads on the subject.
Fetterman also faced questions about his health. In response to one on why he would not release his full medical records, Fetterman defended his willingness to serve in the Senate. “My doctor thinks I’m fit to serve, and I think that’s what I’m doing,” Fetterman said. He has published two letters from his doctors saying that he is capable of doing the job of a United States Senator.
The Democrat opened the debate by saying “good night” and at other times corrected his words. Fetterman frequently attacked Oz during the debate, calling him dishonest, while Oz also criticized Fetterman for misrepresenting his positions. At one point during an exchange on higher education, Oz said, “Obviously, I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this.”
With two weeks to go before Election Day, the exceptionally important debate gave Pennsylvania voters a chance to see the two Senate candidates square off in an extremely close race that could determine the balance of power in a 50-seat Senate. fifty.
Fetterman’s health has become a focal point — and a source of friction — for both campaigns, and it was a major factor in the format of Tuesday’s debate, where Fetterman used a subtitle system to accommodate what he and his doctor has said are symptoms of an auditory processing disorder.
Before the debate, the Fetterman campaign said it requested that the real-time transcript that Fetterman and Oz were viewing be shown to reporters, but the Oz campaign blocked efforts to bring the media into the studio. The Oz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Fetterman is likely to come under a higher degree of scrutiny for verbal errors in tonight’s debate, according to advocates for people with disabilities. Sarah Blahovec, a disability civic engagement expert who has served as director of civic engagement and voting at the National Council for Independent Living, said those mistakes shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of Fetterman’s ability to serve. “Even the people who criticize him now have had days when they’re exhausted enough to get a word wrong,” she said.
Over the course of the debate, the two men repeatedly accused the other of dishonesty. Fetterman tried to hit Oz with the kinds of attacks his campaign has launched through viral social media posts, but he struggled with many of the lines. Responding to a question about raising the minimum wage, Fetterman said, “How can a man, you know, with 10 giant mansions, you know, be willing to talk about a set salary for anybody?”
On abortion, Oz refused to support a federal ban on the procedure as has been proposed under a bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.).
“If the vote took place today and you were elected a senator, you are on the Senate floor, the secretary calls you, there is a nominal vote. Are you a yes or a no? the moderator asked Oz. “How would you vote on the Lindsey Graham bill? You have 30 seconds.”
“I don’t even need 30 seconds,” Oz said. “I’ll give you a broader answer: I’m not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they want to do. The decision on abortion should be left in the hands of the states.”
Regarding abortion, Oz also said, “I don’t want the federal government to be involved in that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders leading the democracy that has always allowed our nation to thrive to come up with the best ideas so that states can decide for themselves.”
Fetterman supports abortion rights and has vowed to fight to codify a federal abortion right in the Senate.
Speaking of the leaders of their respective political parties, Oz said he would endorse another Donald Trump presidential bid, but did not immediately embrace the former president, who backed his campaign in the primary. “I will support whoever the GOP puts forth,” Oz said. Pressed further, he said, “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president.”
Fetterman said he would support President Biden if he runs for re-election in 2024, a question Democratic candidates have grappled with on the campaign trail amid Biden’s low approval ratings. “If he chooses to run, he would absolutely support him, but ultimately that’s just his choice,” Fetterman said.
The debate came amid polls showing a close race, with Fetterman leading but by a smaller margin than during the summer, facing a steady stream of attacks from Oz and his allies. Democrats see Pennsylvania as their best chance to win a seat; it is now held by Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R), who is retiring.
The debate featured not only different policy platforms, but also starkly contrasting characters. Fetterman, 6-foot-8, tattooed, with a goatee, rarely wears a suit and tie, though he did on Tuesday. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has hosted “The Dr. Oz Show” for years, almost always looks TV-ready, with coiffed hair and seemingly tailored suits.
The closed captions in the debate were done through real-time transcription services provided by court reporters, Dennis Owens, the ABC 27 News anchor who moderated the debate, said in advance.
Morris reported from Washington. Mariana Alfaro and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.