Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman acknowledged health challenges knocked him down, but tried to make the case that he'd "keep coming back up" in the opening moments of his debate against Republican Mehmet Oz on Tuesday. The highly anticipated clash could prove pivotal in the state's high-stakes U.S. Senate contest.
Fetterman, 53-year-old lieutenant governor, has said he "almost died" after suffering a stroke in May. On Tuesday night, he addressed what he called the "elephant in the room."
"I had a stroke. He's never let me forget that," Fetterman said, speaking haltingly at times of his Republican opponent. "I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together. ... It knocked me down and then I'm going to keep coming back up."
Fetterman insists he is prepared for the demands of the Senate as he continues to recover from the stroke. Independent experts consulted by The Associated Press before the debate said he appears to be recovering well.
He did use closed-captioning during the debate to help him process the words he hears.
Oz, a celebrity heart surgeon, has hammered Fetterman on the issue repeatedly during the campaign. On Tuesday night, though, he attacked Fetterman's policies on crime, saying he is "trying to get as many murders out of jail as possible."
"These radical positions extend beyond crime," Oz charged.
While debates have rarely swayed elections in the modern era, the intense national interest in the prime-time affair – particularly in Fetterman's performance, given critics' talk of his poor health – suggested this debate could prove decisive in an election central to the Democrats'uphill battle to retain their congressional majority.
For much of the year, it looked as if Fetterman was the favorite. But as Election Day nears, the race has tightened. And now, just two weeks before the final votes are cast, even the White House is privately concerned that Fetterman's candidacy is at risk.
Voting is already well underway across the state. As of Tuesday, 639,000 votes had already been cast.
"The debate looms very large, bigger than usual for a Senate debate," said Republican activist Charles Gerow, a veteran of two decades of Sunday TV political talk shows.
The Pennsylvania Senate hopefuls faced each other inside a Harrisburg television studio. No audience was allowed, and the debate host, Nexstar Media, declined to allow an AP photographer access to the event.
The meeting was the first and only major statewide debate this year in Pennsylvania, since Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano couldn't reach an agreement on terms for a gubernatorial debate.
Fetterman is a star in progressive politics nationwide. But his health has emerged as a central issue over the election's final weeks, even as candidates elsewhere clash over issues like abortion, crime, and inflation.
Oz had pushed for more than a half-dozen debates, suggesting that Fetterman's unwillingness to agree to more than one is because the stroke had debilitated him. Fetterman insisted that one debate is typical — although two is more customary — and that Oz's focus on debates was a cynical ploy to lie about his health.
Democrats also contended that the televised debate setting likely would have favored Oz even without questions about the stroke.
Oz is a longtime television personality who hosted "The Dr. Oz Show" weekdays for 13 seasons after getting his start as a regular guest on Oprah Winfrey's show in 2004. Fetterman, by contrast, is a less practiced public speaker who is introverted by nature.
"This was always going to be an away game for John Fetterman," said Mustafa Rashed, a Democrat political consultant based in Philadelphia.
Fetterman asked for, and was granted, a closed-captioning system for the debate that displayed in writing everything said on a large screen behind the moderators.
The Fetterman campaign said in a memo ahead of the debate that the closed captioning would be "typed out by human beings in real time, on live TV," warning that it could lead to time delays, transcription errors, and miscommunication. "It is impossible to control and unavoidable," the memo said.
Donald Trump endorsed Oz earlier in the year and campaigned alongside the Pennsylvania Republican in September.
Fetterman, meanwhile, has embraced Biden — even if he was reluctant to do so earlier in the year.
The Democrat president campaigned with Fetterman in Pittsburgh during the Labor Day parade and just last week headlined a fundraiser for Fetterman in Philadelphia. There, Biden said the "rest of the world is looking" and suggested a Fetterman loss would imperil his agenda.
Biden is also scheduled to headline the state Democrat Party's annual preelection dinner in Philadelphia on Friday.
Oz has faced pointed questions about his residency throughout the campaign.
For much of the year, Fetterman has seized on Oz's tenuous connections to the state in witty social media posts and media campaigns.
Oz was born in Ohio, was raised in Delaware, and has lived in New Jersey for decades. In 2020, People magazine ran a feature on the New Jersey mansion that Oz and his wife, Lisa, "built from scratch 20 years ago."
Later that year, Oz formally adopted a Pennsylvania address. And the next year, 2021, he launched his Senate campaign.
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