WAYNE, Pa. — Jamie Umstattd had heard about John Fetterman’s stroke. But when he watched clips of the Democrat debating Republican Mehmet Oz, he was surprised at how much Fetterman struggled verbally.
But the 65-year-old voter is still leaning toward casting his ballot for the Democratic Senate nominee, who has acknowledged sometimes fumbling over his words and has said he suffers from symptoms of an auditory processing disorder.
Of Oz, Umstattd said, “I think this is simply an opportunity for him, for his celebrity status. I don’t know if he really stands for anything.” Fetterman, he said, “strikes me as someone who is more low-key.”
The only televised debate between Oz and Fetterman has itself been the subject of debate across this key battleground state in the days after it ended Tuesday night. The Democrat read questions on a monitor that provided closed captioning, and he frequently stumbled over his words and struggled with the quick-fire format of the debate, prompting many Oz supporters to question the Democrat’s ability to serve in Congress and jarring many Fetterman supporters.
But in interviews with 15 voters across the state on Wednesday and Thursday, Fetterman supporters and leaners said the debate did not deter them from casting their ballots for him or from likely doing so. Such loyalty to a candidate who has established an enthusiastic following by eschewing political norms — the 6-foot-8, tattooed and goateed Fetterman’s preferred campaign-trail attire is a hoodie and shorts — is what Fetterman’s campaign hopes will propel him in the final stage of a close race.
But some Democrats are nervously trying to turn the page in a contest that was tightening before the debate, as Oz and his allies relentlessly attacked Fetterman over crime and other issues. J. William Reynolds, the Democratic mayor of Bethlehem, a swing area, commended Fetterman for not dodging the debate.
“He is a straight-up guy and he showed up because he was going to answer the questions, so people could see him,” Reynolds said. “And when you represent people, you don’t get to choose when you show up.”
Part of what is keeping them in Fetterman’s corner, supporters said, is a sense that he is a more authentic person than Oz. Umstattd sat across from his girlfriend’s brother, Carlos Reyes, at a diner in the Philadelphia suburbs and debated the issue. Both are registered Republicans who voted for President Biden. Reyes, like Umstattd, is leaning toward voting for Fetterman.
“I just think he’s come across in the last 10 years as just some guy who sort of is very much impressed with himself,” Umstattd said of Oz, a celebrity doctor. “I wouldn’t want him to operate on me because I think that he’s going to be distracted thinking about what’s he going to be doing for his next television show. He’s a guy who’s real self-ego-driven.”
Reyes challenged his friend, pointing to one of Oz’s commercials that shows him on the streets of Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood plagued by violence and fentanyl overdoses, advocating for more drug-treatment facilities. “Is that a person only in it for himself?” Reyes posed.
Reyes, 59, who until recently was supporting Oz because of the antiabortion position he is running on, said he has been influenced by commercials attacking the celebrity cardiothoracic surgeon over his history promoting dubious medical cures on his television show. “There’s a lot of things I don’t like about him,” Reyes said.
Bob Viola, 71, was in a nearby shopping mall as he reflected on the race to a reporter. He said he watched the debate to “see how Fetterman did after the stroke.”
“I thought he’d do a little better than he did,” said Viola, a Democrat. “Oz talked fast so Fetterman couldn’t follow him.” Still, Viola said he plans to vote for Fetterman.
Fetterman’s doctors have said he is fit to serve in the Senate. But pressed during the debate to release more-complete medical records, he declined to do so.
Ben, 54, who spoke on the condition he be identified by his first name only, was finishing breakfast with his wife and son, who attends Villanova University nearby. An Oz supporter, he said Fetterman’s debate performance “raised questions” about the Democrat’s “capacity to function.”
The debate grabbed the attention of Republicans and Democrats beyond Pennsylvania. “Looks like the debate didn’t hurt us too much in Pennsylvania,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was overheard telling President Biden during a hot mic moment during Biden’s trip to New York. “So that’s good.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on Thursday mocked the speaking abilities of Fetterman during an interview with syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt. “Well, maybe they can get a full sentence out,” McDaniel replied to Hewitt after he was critical of Biden and Vice President Harris, who have planned to appear at a political event to boost Fetterman and other Pennsylvania Democrats.
To prevail in Pennsylvania typically requires performing well in the suburban counties, like this one, that surround Philadelphia, where voters tend to swing between political parties. As they weigh their choices in a high-stakes Senate race that could decide the balance of power in the Senate, many bring up their perceptions of the character of the candidates more than the issues.
Sitting alone eating a salmon salad, Mark Cross, 61, who is also a registered Republican, said he is supporting Fetterman and did not vote for Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections. He said he can’t support Oz because of his associations with Trump. The former president endorsed Oz in the Republican primary and has campaigned for him in the general election.
“The Republican Party is a piece of trash,” Cross said.
Cross, who said he had a brain tumor removed four years ago and can personally relate to Fetterman’s recovery path, doesn’t think Fetterman’s health should be an issue.
“I can think, but interpreting what he’s saying is different. It takes time,” he said. “It takes time to think, my off-the-cuff thinking is affected. The thought is in your head, but it’s not coming out of your mouth.”
Across the state in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, more than 3,000 people gathered at an outdoor concert venue for a Fetterman rally headlined by musician Dave Matthews the night after the debate.
In his own remarks before introducing Matthews to perform, Fetterman quickly addressed the debate.
“Doing that debate wasn’t exactly easy,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy after having a stroke after five months. In fact, in fact, I don’t think that’s ever been in American political history.”
Maryellen Rutkowski, 67, voted twice for Trump to shake things up — “I didn’t like the good ol’ boy’s network” — but she said she has “soured” a little bit on the ex-president as of late.
Rutkowski said she finds Fetterman “strong enough” to go to Washington and not let the political town change him, as she believes it does to many other politicians.
David Stash said he had spoken to Fetterman three or four times the past two weeks and winced watching Tuesday’s debate. “It just seemed so static, so immersive, it threw him off,” said Stash, 73, a volunteer at a store that Fetterman’s wife runs in Braddock, Pa.
Stash said his support is unwavering for his friend.
Kane reported from Pittsburgh. John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.
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