Advisors say Fetterman can have one-on-one conversations but struggles with more chaotic auditory environments, a condition common in people who’ve had a stroke that doctors say can improve over time.
Fetterman, who returned to the campaign trail on Aug. 12, has yet to agree to debates, despite assurances from his advisers that he plans to meet Oz, a famous cardiologist, on stage. He announced Tuesday that he would not attend a proposed Sept. 6 debate after the Oz campaign released a statement that, Fetterman said, showed “they think it’s funny to mock a stroke survivor.” .”
The Oz campaign, which is pushing for five debates, including two next week, pledged in a sarcastic statement on Tuesday to “pay for any additional medical personnel” Fetterman might need in debates, allow Fetterman to take notes or earpiece and allow Fetterman to take a bathroom break if necessary. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which backs Oz, on Wednesday doubled its line of attack, calling Fetterman “a whiny coward” who is “too feeble and weak” to debate.
“If you’re too unhealthy to debate, you’re too unhealthy to serve in the US Senate, where it can be 10x more intense,” the unsigned NRSC statement said.
The mounting tensions highlight an extraordinary dynamic unfolding in a race seen as central to deciding which side will control the Senate next year. Republicans are trying to put Fetterman’s health and the explanation his campaign has given for it at risk this fall after Fetterman suffered a stroke in mid-May and only later revealed a more complete picture of his medical history.
Wanting to show he can hold a demanding job despite a challenging recovery, Fetterman and his allies have gone into battle just as aggressively, labeling the broadsides as embarrassing attacks from a struggling rival.
Since returning to in-person events, Fetterman’s speeches are limited to about 10 minutes and sometimes stall. He has mostly avoided public interactions with reporters and voters, outside of working the rope line. He has conducted two one-on-one interviews with local news channels via Zoom that were conducted with real-time captioning to avoid gaps in the conversation. In both interviews, he revealed his ongoing struggle in both hearing and speaking.
“I’ll miss a word, or maybe I’ll be pushing two words together somewhere in a conversation. But that’s really the only problem and it’s getting better,” Fetterman told KDKA in Pittsburgh.
Fetterman’s campaign announced that he would have his first nationally televised interview since his stroke on MSNBC Wednesday night. Oz and the Republicans have accused Fetterman of being unable to answer questions from journalists.
Democrats and the Fetterman campaign said they see Republican attacks on him as a sign of desperation that could backfire on Oz, who is chasing Fetterman in the early polls. A series of Democratic focus groups in August found little voter concern about Fetterman’s health, with much sympathy for his ongoing recovery, according to a Democratic pollster who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private inquiry.
During the sessions, Democrats showed swing voter videos of Fetterman speaking before and after the stroke to test for concerns. Voters responded by saying they knew people who had had a stroke and “it takes time” and expressed confidence that he would continue to improve, the pollster said.
Fetterman’s campaign responded to Oz on Wednesday with: a video clip from a campaign appearance over the weekend, where he marveled at the approach of the Oz campaign.
“Can you even imagine that if you had a doctor who mocked or ridiculed your illness?” Fetterman said in Mercer County, a rural part of the state. “Here we are now. I would like to think that Dr. Oz might really be lost if you laughed at someone who had had a stroke.”
Oz has avoided participating in the attacks himself, and Tuesday he backed down from his own campaign to mock Fetterman for not eating enough vegetables before his stroke.
“I can only talk with what I say,” Oz said in a radio interview.
The new attacks come as Fetterman continues to recover from a life-threatening blood clot that temporarily restricted blood flow to his brain. His campaign waited nearly two days after the stroke before telling the public he was in hospital, revealing weeks later that Fetterman had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2017, a separate condition that reduces the amount of blood his heart could pump.
After the stroke, he had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted to treat the cardiomyopathy, and Fetterman released a public statement pledging to take the medication he stopped following his diagnosis in 2017.
Fetterman’s aides say he is fully engaged in his campaign and regularly walks several miles a day. After Oz distanced himself from his own campaign statements, Fetterman personally took made a meme he circulated on Twitter using images of the musician Drake to mock those who disapprove of “making fun of strokes” but approve of “others who make fun of strokes,” according to a person familiar with the events .
dr. Joseph Schindler, clinical director of the Yale New Haven Comprehensive Stroke Center, said that without a… good clinical examination and an MRI of the brain, it is difficult to know what kind of disorder an individual stroke survivor has. But he said the inability to filter out external stimuli, including background noise, is a common complaint of people who have had a stroke. It may improve over time, but it doesn’t always, he said.
As an example, Schindler offered a person who sits down on a bench. When the person first sits down, the person feels the couch, but over time, the brain filters out that stimulus as it focuses on other things. But after a stroke, a person may not be able to do that, or ignore nearby conversation or background music, Schindler said.
“My experience is that it’s highly variable and recovery often depends on the injury in the brain and the localization of where that injury is,” Schindler said.
The tenor of the Fetterman-Oz campaign has deteriorated throughout the summer, with Fetterman mocking Oz as an out-of-touch celebrity “in Gucci loafers” who has long lived in New Jersey and owns multiple properties around the world. Oz has responded by calling Fetterman a soft-on-crime liberal hiding in his basement.
“The Fetterman campaign completely insults the intelligence of voters in Pennsylvania,” Oz adviser Barney Keller said Wednesday. “It can only be one of two reasons: he’s lying about his ability to debate or he’s lying about his willingness to debate. He can’t have both at the same time.”
Despite Oz’s own hesitations about the attacks on Fetterman, the Republican campaign has shown no regrets for its aggressive attacks on Fetterman’s health.
“Our staff told him to eat his vegetables and his staff employs two convicted murderers,” said an Oz adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more openly describe the approach. “We leave it to Pennsylvania to decide.”
Fetterman, who had embraced criminal justice reforms including the legalization of recreational marijuana, employed Dennis and Lee Horton, brothers who served 30 years in prison for a robbery and murder they claim they did not commit. They were recommended for leniency by the state’s Board of Pardons in 2020 and were later released from life sentences, with the support of both Fetterman and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is this year’s Democratic governor candidate.
Fetterman has called their release “the pinnacle of my career”.
“These brothers will not die in prison for a crime they did not commit,” he said on Twitter in October.
sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) spent several hours with Fetterman on Saturday at Demstock, an annual festival gathering for Democrats nationwide. Casey said there were no problems with Fetterman’s ability to hear and respond during their interactions in a cavernous room, although his recovery was still evident.
“He sounded really good and very strong,” Casey said. “It’s not there yet, it needs time. I think most people understand that.”
Democrats in the state are “not at all concerned,” Casey said. “Obviously he’s come a long way between the stroke just before the primary and where he is now, and he’s made remarkable progress in a relatively short time.”
TJ Rooney, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, hosted a virtual fundraiser for Fetterman a few weeks ago, where the candidate spoke and then there was a Q&A with questions people submitted ahead of time, all read by the same person. donor during the call.
“His speech was definitely wrong, but he definitely heard and understood the questions,” Rooney said. “His answers were jumbled, some words were jumbled up, but he clearly knew what was being asked.”