HARRISBURG, Dad. (AP) – More than five months after experiencing a strokePennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman sometimes struggled to explain his views and often spoke hesitantly during a long-awaited debate Tuesday against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz as they compete for a pivotal Senate seat.
In the opening minutes of the debate, Fetterman spoke of what he called the “elephant in the room.”
“I had a stroke. He never let me forget that,” Fetterman said of Oz, who constantly questioned his ability to serve in the Senate. “And I may miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down and I keep coming back.”
When urged later in the debate to release his medical records, he declined to commit.
Oz, a famous heart surgeon, ignored his opponent’s health concerns during the debate, but instead seized on Fetterman’s policies on immigration and crime and his support for President Joe Biden. At one point, Oz said that Fetterman, the state lieutenant governor, was “trying to get as many killers out of jail as possible.”
“His extreme views have made him untenable,” he said.
The forum had many of the trappings of traditional debate, complete with heated exchanges and interruptions. But the impact of the stroke was apparent when Fetterman used captioning above the moderator to help him process the words he heard, leading to occasional awkward pauses.
The biggest question that emerged from the debate was whether it would have a lasting impact, two weeks before the election and more than 600,000 votes have already been cast. The stakes in the race to retire GOP Senator Pat Toomey are huge: It represents Democrats’ best chance of turning over a Senate seat this year — and could set party control of the chamber and determine the future of Biden’s agenda .
But instead of watching the entire hour as the candidates debate abortion, inflation and crime, many Pennsylvania residents only see clips of the event on social media. And both sides are preparing to flood the airwaves with television commercials in the final stretch.
Independent experts consulted by The Associated Press said Fetterman appears to be recovering remarkably well. dr. Sonia Sheth, a stroke rehabilitation specialist who watched the debate, called Fetterman an inspiration to stroke survivors.
“In my opinion, he did very well,” says Sheth of Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Chicago. “He had his stroke less than a year ago and will continue to recover in the coming year. He had some mistakes in his answers, but overall he was able to formulate fluid, thoughtful answers.”
Problems with auditory processing don’t mean someone also has cognitive problems, the experts agreed. The brain’s language network differs from regions involved in decision-making and critical thinking.
Oz, a longtime television personality, was more at home on the debate stage. He set himself up as a moderate Republican seeking to unite a divided state, even though he pledged to support former President Donald Trump if he were to run for president again in 2024.
“I’m a surgeon, I’m not a politician,” Oz said. “We take big problems, we target them and we solve them. We do it by uniting, by coming together, not by dividing.”
Fetterman was similarly committed to supporting Biden if he were to run again in 2024.
The Democratic president campaigned with Fetterman in Pittsburgh during the Labor Day parade and led a fundraising drive for Fetterman in Philadelphia last week. There Biden said the “rest of the world is looking” and suggested that a Fetterman loss would jeopardize his agenda.
While supporting Biden, Fetterman also said “he needs to do more to support and fight inflation.”
Abortion was an important dividing line during the debate.
Oz insists he supports three exceptions: for rape, incest, and to protect the mother’s life. When he insisted Tuesday night, he suggested he was against Senator Lindsey Graham’s South Carolina 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 don’t want the federal government involved at all,” Oz said. “I want women, doctors, local political leaders to bring the democracy that has always allowed our country to flourish, the best ideas forward so that states can decide for themselves.”
Fetterman delivered a blunt message to women: “If you believe the choice of abortion belongs to you and your doctor, that’s what I’m fighting for.”
A star of progressive politics across the country, Fetterman has developed a loyal following, thanks in part to his blunt working-class appeal, extraordinary height, tattoos and unabashedly progressive policies. On Tuesday, the six-foot-tall Democrat traded his signature hoodie and shorts for a dark suit and tie.
But even before the debate, Democrats in Washington were concerned about Fetterman’s campaign given the stakes.
For much of the year, it seemed that Fetterman was the clear favorite, especially as the Republicans waged a nasty nomination battle that left the GOP divided and embittered. But as Election Day approaches, the race has tightened. And now, just two weeks before the final votes are cast, even the White House is personally concerned that Fetterman’s candidacy is in jeopardy.
Fetterman’s speech problems were visible all night. He often had trouble finishing sentences.
When he was pressed to explain his changing stance on fracking, a critical issue in a state where thousands of jobs are linked to natural gas production, his response was particularly inconvenient.
“I am in favor of fracking. And I don’t, I don’t. I support fracking, and I stand and I support fracking,” Fetterman said.
At another time, the moderator appeared to cut Fetterman off as he struggled to finish an answer defending Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. He also stumbled before rounding off a major line of attack: “We need to make Dr. Oz and the Republicans believe in cutting Medicare and Social Security…”
The Pennsylvania Senate hopefuls faced each other in a Harrisburg television studio. No audience was allowed and the host of the debate, Nexstar Media, refused to allow an AP photographer access to the event.
Oz had pushed for more than half a dozen debates, suggesting that Fetterman’s reluctance to agree to more than one was because the stroke had weakened him. Fetterman emphasized that one debate is typical — though two is more common — and that Oz’s focus on debates was a cynical ploy to lie about his health.
Fetterman declined to commit to releasing his full health record when the moderator repeatedly asked for it on Tuesday.
“My doctor believes I am fit to serve. And that’s what I believe is where I stand,” Fetterman said.
While it’s common for presidential candidates to release health records, that’s not common in US Senate races. Some senators have released medical records in the past when they ran for president.
Democrats noted that the televised debate would likely have favored Oz even without questions about the stroke. Oz hosted “The Dr. Oz Show” weekdays for 13 seasons after starting as a regular on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2004. Fetterman, on the other hand, is a less accomplished public speaker who is naturally introverted.
Many Republicans were enthusiastic about the outcome of the debate, though most — including Oz — tried to avoid worrying about Fetterman’s health.
Donald Trump Jr. was less careful.
“If Fetterman is some sort of leftist decoy to actually make Biden sound a little bit intelligent and articulate, he’s doing a great job,” the former president’s son tweeted.
Peoples reported from New York. AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson contributed from Washington State.
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