(HARRISBURG, Pa.) — The highly anticipated Pennsylvania Senate debate on Tuesday night was a fast-paced affair centered on political issues interspersed with — and at times interrupted by — candidates’ attacks, which defined a key race over who controls the Congress. evenly divided upper chamber.
The confrontation also brought to light Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman’s stroke symptoms, as well as what he said was his resilience and recovery after, as he said, a notable but not disqualifying challenge.
Many eyes were on Fetterman’s health as he took the stage. He spoke haltingly and at times incoherently throughout the debate, even more so than he has at campaign events since returning to the track in August, three months after his stroke. Sometimes he seemed to have trouble completing his answers.
Two monitors were hung above moderators’ heads to transcribe both Republican Mehmet Oz’s questions and answers in real time to help with Fetterman’s auditory processing issues, which outside neurologists say don’t are not an indication of cognitive problems for stroke survivors.
Fetterman worked with a speech therapist; his doctor said last week he was ready for “full duty” at the office, although he declined to release his medical records.
Several times on Tuesday, but not often, there was a pause before Fetterman answered a question while reading the transcript.
Shortly after the debate began, he cited his stroke and the sometimes mocking criticism he faced because of it from his rival’s campaign team.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: I had a stroke. He never let me forget that,” Fetterman said in his opening remarks, beginning a line he would repeat over the course of the hour. “It knocked me down, but I’ll keep going back up.”
Oz, a former surgeon and popular TV host who describes himself as “a living embodiment of the American dream,” did not mention his onstage opponent’s health.
Both candidates were forced to respond for inconsistent views on policies: for example, each received past comments on fracking that contradicted what they had said on the issue on the trail.
“I strongly support fracking,” Oz said when asked about comments he made in 2014 against the industry, which employs thousands of Pennsylvanians but draws attention to its environmental effects.
Fetterman was also asked by moderators to reconcile his recent public support for fracking with comments he made in 2018 sharply criticizing it.
“I have always supported fracking,” he insisted.
Of the discrepancy, Fetterman said awkwardly, “I support fracking…I support fracking.”
He and Oz also attempted to take advantage when questioned about the issues on which they hinged their candidacies.
“I want to look at the face of every woman in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said when the debate shifted to abortion access.
“If you think the choice of your reproductive freedom is Dr. Oz’s, then the choice is yours,” Fetterman said, contrasting his view with his opponent, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape. , incest or maternal health and said he wanted it restricted but not criminalized.
“Roe v. Wade, to me, should be the law,” Fetterman added, referring to the national abortion rights guarantee that was struck down by the Supreme Court this summer.
Fetterman, however, dodged questions about whether he would support any restrictions on abortion, including in later trimesters.
Moderators continually asked Oz if he would support South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal to institute a nationwide ban on abortion, with some exceptions, after 15 weeks.
Oz, as he did with reporters, refused to answer yes or no, saying instead that he was against federal control of the matter and preferred that it be left to the states – to the women, to their doctors. and local politicians, he said.
“Any bill that violates what I said, which is that the feds interfere with a state rule on abortion, I would vote against,” Oz finally acknowledged.
On crime, meanwhile — an issue he exploited by closing his gaping polling gap — Oz touted his endorsements by multiple state police unions while Fetterman defended himself against allegations of soft on crime. He claimed that Oz, who said he has a lax record of granting parole to convicts, had “no experience” in public safety.
Fetterman said as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, he had worked successfully to address gun violence and had a proven track record of addressing those issues.
“We should be talking about crime and inflation — the issues that hurt Pennsylvanians,” said Oz, who repeatedly in the debate touted a plan to “liberate” the state’s energy industry for, as he envisaged it, to increase wages, to strengthen the enterprises. and help bring down high prices.
Oz cited an example of a woman who could no longer afford her groceries given the rising cost of living – a shocking issue, he said.
Fetterman, he said, was a “radical” who would not be budget conscious and raise taxes. On the other hand, it would promote “balance” in Washington.
“I am a surgeon, not a politician. We take big problems, focus on them and solve them,” Oz said late in the debate. “And we do that by uniting, by coming together – not by dividing – and by doing that, we move forward.”
Fetterman said Oz — whom he frequently tries to portray as a liar — wouldn’t have voted for the Democrats’ Inflation Cuts Act in Congress, which allows Medicare to negotiate certain prescription drug prices. , and he invoked Oz’s wealth and relative lack of roots in Pennsylvania. . He repeatedly claimed that Oz wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, which Oz said was a baseless allegation. Oz said one of Fetterman’s ads was taken down for being “dishonest”.
“He has 10 gigantic mansions,” Fetterman said. “We have to fight against corporate greed. We also need to make sure that we also push back against price gouging. »
When asked to explain his plan to attack companies that inflated prices, Fetterman did not respond, speaking more broadly about how “inflation hurts Americans” and how Oz ” has never been able to stand up for working families across America.”
Elsewhere, Fetterman said he supports legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double its current rate. Oz said he wants the minimum wage to be even higher than that, but driven by market forces, not law, through his plan for state energy companies.
The two candidates were split on the value of federal student loan forgiveness — which Fetterman supports — while Oz argued he has a more defined plan to lower the price of college, including by offering online courses.
Campaigns react after debate
Tuesday was the only event Fetterman agreed to after Oz’s pleas and criticism – “that’s the only debate I could get you to come talk to me about,” Oz said on stage – and before that, Fetterman’s campaign attempted to lower expectations for his performance, with two principal aides telling reporters in a Monday memo that debating “is not John’s format” and citing Oz’s years on television.
Within minutes of the puck drop ending on Tuesday night, his campaign team rallied to — in their words — brag about his performance.
“We are thrilled with John’s performance,” spokesman Joe Calvello told reporters.
The campaign announced Tuesday night that it planned to run an ad targeting Oz for one of its responses on abortion access, in which he said policy should be decided democratically by states but involve more specifically “a woman, a doctor and local political leaders”.
The Oz side, meanwhile, declared victory.
“We had a debate tonight that was a complete disaster for John Fetterman,” adviser Barney Keller told reporters. “He couldn’t defend any of his radical positions, and it really showed.”
Both candidates will be back on the stump on Wednesday, with Election Day less than two weeks away and early voting well underway.
Before Tuesday, the polls had tightened considerably, with the FiveThirtyEight average now showing Fetterman ahead by less than 3 points, down from almost 11 points six weeks ago.
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