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In Pennsylvania Senate race, Fetterman’s stroke and Oz’s positions spur debate

The media and nation are divided over whether John Fetterman’s health or Mehmet Oz’s positions were more consequential in Tuesday’s debate

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Democratic Senate candidate and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, and Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz.

This combination of file photos shows Democratic Senate candidate and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, and Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz in 2022 photos.

Associated Press

A national discussion has erupted among political observers about the difficulty Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, had speaking at the one and only debate against his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz. Democrats see the Keystone State’s open Senate seat as their best pick-up opportunity, while Republicans view retaining retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat as crucial to their plan to take control of the chamber.

Political observers across the political spectrum have addressed Fetterman’s inability to fully comprehend moderator questions and to speak coherently at the debate. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, just days before the Democratic primary. He wasn’t seen at public campaign events until mid-August and the lingering effects of the stroke were apparent at Tuesday’s debate.

Fetterman quickly addressed the stroke in his opening statements, calling it, “the elephant in the room.” He continued, “I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” Fetterman said of Oz who has questioned whether Fetterman’s deteriorated health would inhibit his ability to carry out the duties of a senator. “And I might miss some words during the debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down and I’m going to keep coming back up.” 

Fetterman also reversed himself on his previous opposition to fracking. “I do support fracking, he said before momentarily pausing. “I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.” His statement Tuesday contrasts with his comments in a 2018 interview, where he said, “I don’t support fracking at all and I never have, and I’ve signed the no fossil fuels money pledge.” 

Oz’s comments on abortion and support for Donald Trump sparked commentary from the political left. “As a physician, I’ve been in the room when there’s some difficult conversations happening. I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” Oz said in reply to the moderator’s question regarding whether he supports a federal ban on abortion. “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,” he said.

Oz also said he would support whoever wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. When asked specifically about whether he would support Trump, he added, “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president, but this is bigger than one candidate.”

Social media posts about the debate flooded Twitter when it was over. Political commentators and operatives from the left and right scrutinized Fetterman’s inability to communicate. MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough described Fetterman’s communication as “seriously impaired.”

David Axelrod, a longtime Democratic political consultant, noted that Fetterman’s stroke was obviously still a cause for concern. He also didn’t think Oz helped himself win over undecided voters.

Others pointed out that the criticism of NBC correspondent Dasha Burns, who spoke about Fetterman’s speech impairment after she interviewed him, was unfounded. Burns’ interview with Fetterman discussed his dependence on speech-to-text software to communicate, software he used during the debate as well. Some critics accused her reporting of being “ableist.” 

The question still remains whether the debate will move the needle among voters.

“It was tough,” Karin Tatela told CNN after watching the debate. “I told my friend, I said, ‘I don’t really want to watch, it is kind of like looking at a car accident.” However, she still plans to vote for Fetterman.

Other voters weren’t so sure. NewsNation’s Chris Cuomo talked with independent and Democratic voters after the debate who expressed serious concerns about Fetterman.

“He should not have debated … that debate may have tanked his campaign,” Chris Kofinis, a Democratic campaign strategist, told NBC. “This race was trending toward victory. Now, it’s anyone’s guess what happens.”    

While it will take some time for pollsters to sort out whether the debate changed anyone’s vote, Tom Bevan, co-founder of RealClearPolitics, tweeted out how betting markets now heavily favor Oz to win in November.