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For Fetterman, contentious exchanges, verbal struggles in debate with Oz

The debate marked a new test for the Democrat, who has eased his way back into campaigning after spending much of the summer recovering from a stroke

Pennsylvania Senate candidates Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) and Mehmet Oz (R) squared off in their first and only debate in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 25. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
7 min

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz clashed on Tuesday over contentious issues such as abortion, crime and energy in a televised debate, where Fetterman, who is recovering from a May stroke, often stumbled over his words and struggled with the rapid-fire format of questions and answers.

The debate marked a new test in the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania for Fetterman, who has appeared in public in much-more-controlled settings since suffering a stroke just before the Democratic primary that has sometimes altered the way he speaks and led to symptoms of an auditory processing disorder, according to the Democratic nominee and his doctor. Throughout the 60-minute debate, Fetterman’s speech was halting, and he mispronounced words and tripped over phrases.

John Fetterman’s health sparks contentious debate in final stretch

Fetterman sought to head off a shaky debate performance from the very first question, appealing to viewers’ empathy for someone fighting back from a serious stroke. Oz, a former television personality, spoke at a fast clip, hurrying his responses in a format that allowed only 60-second answers and 15- and 30-second rebuttals.

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“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” said Fetterman, referencing his health and the questions Oz has raised about it. “And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down but I’m going to keep coming back up. And this campaign is all about, to me, is about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that got knocked down, that needs to get back up, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania that also got knocked down that needs to keep to get back up.”

Both candidates were put on the defensive over policy, with Fetterman pressed several times over his past opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fetterman said he supports fracking and has always done so; but moderators questioned why in 2018 he said he didn’t “support fracking at all.”

Fetterman supported a fracking moratorium in Pennsylvania.

“I do support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t. I support fracking, and I stand, and I do, support fracking,” Fetterman said during the debate.

Oz defended his years as the host of the “Dr. Oz” medical show, on which critics say he promoted dubious cures for weight loss and illnesses. “I never sold weight loss products as described in those commercials,” Oz said, referring to Fetterman’s attack ads on the subject.

Fetterman faced questions about his health. In response to one about why he wouldn’t release his full medical records, he defended his readiness to serve in the Senate. “My doctor believes that I’m fit to be serving, and that’s what I believe is where I’m standing,” Fetterman said. He has released two letters from his doctors saying that he is capable of doing the job of a U.S. senator.

The Democrat led off the debate by saying “good night” and at other times corrected his words. Fetterman frequently attacked Oz, casting him as dishonest, while Oz criticized Fetterman for misrepresenting his positions. During an exchange about higher education, Oz said: “Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this.”

With two weeks until Election Day, the exceptionally high-stakes debate gave Pennsylvania voters one opportunity to see the two candidates face off in an extremely tight race that could determine the balance of power in the current 50-50 Senate.

Fetterman’s health has become a focal point — and a source of friction — for both campaigns, and was a major factor in the debate format, which involved Fetterman’s using a closed-captioning system to accommodate for what he and his doctor have said are symptoms of an auditory processing disorder.

Before the debate, the Fetterman campaign said it requested that reporters be shown the real-time transcription that Fetterman and Oz were seeing, but efforts to bring media inside the studio were blocked by the Oz campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Fetterman was likely to be held to a higher degree of scrutiny over verbal missteps in the debate, according to disability advocates. Sarah Blahovec, a disability civic engagement expert who has worked as the voting and civic engagement director at the National Council on Independent Living, said such miscues should not be seen as a reflection on Fetterman’s ability to serve. “Even the people who are criticizing him now have had days where they’re exhausted enough to mess up a word,” she said.

Over the course of the debate, the men repeatedly accused each other of dishonesty. Fetterman tried to hit Oz with the types of attacks his campaign has lobbed through viral social media posts, but he struggled over many of the lines. Answering a question about raising the minimum wage, Fetterman said: “How can a man, you know, with, with 10 gigantic mansions, you know, has a willing to talk about, like, willing wage for anybody.”

On abortion, Oz declined to support a federal ban on the procedure as it has been proposed in a bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

“If the vote were held today and you were elected senator, you’re on the Senate floor, the clerk calls you, there’s a roll-call vote. Are you a yea or nay?” the moderator asked Oz. “How would you vote on the Lindsey Graham bill? You have 30 seconds.”

“I don’t even need 30 seconds,” Oz said. “I’ll give you a bigger answer: I am not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do. The abortion decision should be left up to states.”

Oz also said: “I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders leading the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”

Fetterman supports abortion rights and has vowed to fight to codify in the Senate a federal right to abortion.

Fetterman’s use of captions is common in stroke recovery, experts say

Speaking about leaders in their respective political parties, Oz said he would back another presidential run by Donald Trump, but he did not immediately embrace the former president, who endorsed his campaign in the primary. “I’ll support whoever the Republican Party puts up,” Oz said. Pressed further, he said: “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president.”

Fetterman said he’d support President Biden if he runs for reelection in 2024, a question Democratic candidates have grappled with on the campaign trail amid Biden’s low approval ratings. “If he does choose to run, I would absolutely support him, but ultimately that’s only his choice,” Fetterman said.

The debate came amid polls showing a tightening race, with Fetterman leading, but by a smaller margin than he had over the summer, and facing a steady stream of attacks from Oz and his allies. Democrats view Pennsylvania as their best chance to flip a seat; it is now held by retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R).

The debate showcased not only different policy platforms but starkly contrasting personas. Fetterman, 6-foot-8, tattooed and goateed, rarely wears a suit and tie — though he did on Tuesday. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon who for years hosted “The Dr. Oz Show,” almost always looks TV-ready, with coifed hair and suits that appear tailored.

The closed captioning in the debate was done through real-time transcription services provided by stenographers, Dennis Owens, the ABC 27 News anchor who moderated the debate, said beforehand.

Morris reported from Washington. Mariana Alfaro and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.

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Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.