The long-anticipated showdown between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz finally took place on a debate stage in Harrisburg on Tuesday, two weeks before voters will decide which man to send to the U.S. Senate and help determine which party will hold the gavel in January.
The debate showed Mr. Fetterman, 53, struggling with auditory processing problems that are lingering effects of a stroke he suffered in May. He opened his remarks to the audience by saying “goodnight everybody,” and at times had difficulty talking specifically about his own solutions for inflation, high housing and energy prices.
He often reverted to attacking Mr. Oz and his wealth.
Mr. Fetterman’s campaign team issued a memo earlier in the day lowering expectations for his performance. Mr. Fetterman has mostly avoided lengthy public speaking or answering questions and his debate appearance marked his longest interaction with the public since the stroke.
Mr. Fetterman received special accommodations to help him process questions. Monitors displayed closed captioning to help Mr. Fetterman process the questions from moderators and answers from Mr. Oz.
“I might miss some words during this debate, I might mush some words together, it might knock me down but I keep getting back up,” Mr. Fetterman said.
SEE ALSO: Fetterman says stroke won’t stop him but ducks question about releasing his medical records
Mr. Oz, 62, a celebrity heart surgeon who hosted a television show, avoided focusing on Mr. Fetterman’s physical and mental limitations, which he has questioned earlier in his campaign. Instead, he worked to define Mr. Fetterman as a far-left politician out of line with many Pennsylvanians, especially on crime. Mr. Oz highlighted Mr. Fetterman’s past support for paroling dangerous criminals.
Mr. Oz said Mr. Fetterman would raise taxes and do nothing to stop allowing illegal immigrants to flood the southern border Mr. Oz said. He also accused Mr. Fetterman of failing to pay his taxes.
“Those are radical positions, they are extreme and they are out of touch with Pennsylvanians,” Mr. Oz said. Mr. Fetterman said the unpaid taxes were connected with a non-profit and were eventually paid.
Mr. Fetterman has criticized Mr. Oz as a wealthy carpetbagger who is out of touch with the state’s working class and he has used social media frequently to attack his GOP opponent, taking to Twitter moments before the debate began.
“Expect Dr. Oz to spew loads of BS tonight,” Mr. Fetterman tweeted.
Mr. Fetterman and Mr. Oz clashed on abortion. Mr. Fetterman said Mr. Oz held radical rules on limiting abortion, while Mr. Oz said Mr. Fetterman would support abortion up to 38 weeks. Mr. Fetterman said he backs the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court that legalized abortion, which was overturned in June. Mr. Oz said states should decide limits on the procedure.
SEE ALSO: Fetterman changes tune on fracking, says he supports tapping Pennsylvania’s rich energy resource
Mr. Fetterman struggled to defend a past interview and other statements in which he said he opposed fracking, a critical industry in Pennsylvania. “I’ve always supported fracking,” Mr. Fettermans said, unable to explain his earlier opposition.
Mr. Oz said he also supports fracking, reversing himself from a 2014 opinion piece in which he said it should be halted until it is studied for health risks.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race is rated a toss-up by most political analysts. Recent polls show Mr. Oz has closed in to within two points of Mr. Fetterman, who is Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor.
Mr. Oz, whose candidacy in the primary was boosted by the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, said he’d back Mr. Trump if he runs again in 2024. Mr. Fetterman said he supports President Biden, but that he could do more to battle inflation.
“I think Joe Biden is a good, good family man,” Mr. Fetterman said. “And I believe he stands for the union way of life.”
The two parties have poured tens of millions of dollars into the race, while outside groups set a new record, spending $131 million, about evenly divided, in support of the two candidates, the campaign spending watchdog group OpenSecrets reported.
Republicans are increasing spending in the closing weeks of the campaign. Two GOP political action committees are spending $6 million in a bid to help Mr. Oz defeat Mr. Fetterman. The GOP is eager to hold onto the seat, which was left open when Republican Sen. Pat. Toomey announced he would not seek a third term.
At the debate, Mr. Fetterman would not commit to releasing his medical records when asked by the debate moderator.
“My doctor believes I am fit to be serving and that is what I believe where I am standing,” Mr. Fetterman said. “Transparency is about showing up.”
Mr. Oz accused Mr. Fetterman of dodging questions from voters and the media on the campaign trail and mostly avoiding public appearances.
“You have hidden from them,” Mr. Oz said.