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Fetterman returns to the campaign trail three months after stroke

John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and Democratic Senate candidate, during a campaign rally in Erie, Pa., on Aug. 12. (Justin Merriman/Bloomberg News)

ERIE, Pa. — John Fetterman chose this lakeside political bellwether county to officially restart his campaign for Senate after a three-month hiatus caused by a stroke, telling a large, spirited crowd that he is “grateful” to be alive.

“Three months ago, three months ago, I might not have made it,” Fetterman said, becoming emotional at times as he talked about his health and credited his wife for saving his life. “But now I’m standing right here in Erie.”

Hanging over his first public in-person campaign event was a single question: How would the lingering effects of the stroke hinder his ability to wage a winning campaign?

Fetterman stood onstage in a lakeside convention center without assistance for about 15 minutes as he was introduced and then gave brief remarks before about 1,300 supporters. His tone, at times swaggering and other times self-deprecating and appreciative, sounded like the victory speech he would have made when he prevailed in his May primary. Instead he was too ill to attend his election night party.

He wiped his brow occasionally while onstage and his bald head gleamed with sweat. But his syntax, which he has acknowledged to be halting at times, was largely fluent, and he only missed a few words. He was assisted at times by the crowd cheering as he paused in the midst of sentences.

Democrats see the race here as one of the most promising pick up opportunities in the Senate for the upcoming midterm elections and a key to holding onto power in the chamber. Republicans are increasingly glum about their chances here as their nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz has vastly underperformed.

But Fetterman’s health could scramble the race. Fetterman’s return to the campaign trail came three days before Pennsylvania’s Aug. 15 deadline to replace a candidate on the ballot.

Fetterman mentioned his stroke several times, crediting his wife Gisele for recognizing the signs of a health problem as they were campaigning together in mid-May and pushing him to go to the hospital.

Fetterman, currently the lieutenant governor, checked into a Pennsylvania hospital on May 13. He remained hospital-bound through the May 17 Democratic primary, which he won overwhelmingly. Doctors cleared him to return home on May 22.

“After all that he’s overcome, I know that he can really take on anything,” said Gisele Fetterman, who thanked the crowd for welcoming her husband back to the campaign trail.

A campaign known for gimmicks and clever marketing didn’t disappoint. When Fetterman took the stage at 6:45 p.m. Friday, supporters began swinging their Fetterman-branded “terrible towels.” The mustard-colored cloths with black writing were a novel handout at the rally and are similar to swag that supporters wave at Pittsburgh Steelers games.

Fetterman joined in hoisting one over his head but also used it to mop sweat from his brow.

Behind the stage hung a banner that read: “EVERY COUNTY EVERY VOTE,” a slogan used since the primary and an in-your-face reminder of the retail politicking that set Fetterman apart during a bruising primary campaign.

Fetterman plans additional smaller events in coming weeks, campaign spokesman Joe Calvello said, although no schedule has been released.

Since his stroke, Fetterman has largely retreated from the campaign trail, although he has released occasional videos and made a few virtual appearances with campaign staff and supporters.

Fetterman appeared at a fundraiser headlined by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) at a home in Philadelphia Tuesday, one of five fundraisers that he’s attended in person since the stroke.

Fetterman has done some interviews with local media since the stroke and granted a TV interview with KDKA-TVs Jon Delano on Thursday night.

“I’ll miss a word sometimes or I might mush two words together sometimes in a conversation,” Fetterman said in that interview. “But that’s really the only issue and it’s getting better and better every day.”

Major medical problems don’t necessarily spell doom for a campaign. Indeed, in the 2020 presidential primary Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) standing in the polls actually improved after he was sidelined with a heart attack.

“What we had to do was demonstrate that Bernie was up to the job of being president,” said Jeff Weaver, who was a top adviser to Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. “He carried on a pretty rigorous schedule pretty fast,” Weaver said.

Weaver’s advice to Fetterman’s campaign: “You just want to go out and get out among the people, to the greatest extent possible go back to your old routine.”

On Friday, Oz challenged Fetterman to a series of at least five general election debates hosted by media outlets across the state, the first one set for early September.

Oz’s gauntlet, strategists said, was designed to focus attention on Fetterman’s health: How will he perform on a debate stage?

“Dr. Oz believes that debates are a crucial part of the democratic process, and he looks forward to sharing his vision for Pennsylvania,” said Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick. “Now that Fetterman has returned to the campaign trail after a 90-day break, Pennsylvanians deserve to know whether he will engage in real debates or go back into hiding in his basement.”

Fetterman’s campaign declined to say whether he would participate in these exchanges. “Today is about John, and it’s not our job to boost Dr. Oz’s struggling campaign,” said Calvello.

Jenna M. Tosto, a Clinical Specialist in Neurologic Physical Therapy with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said that it’s entirely possible that a stroke survivor could participate in a debate months after falling ill.

Tosto said that lingering effects from a stroke can include problems with speech, reduced stamina, physical weakness, decreased coordination and balance. “It’s completely dependent on which portion of the brain is impacted,” Tosto said.

For his official return to the campaign trail, Fetterman’s campaign chose the aptly named Bayfront Convention Center, a soaring building with commanding views of Lake Erie.

“Let me tell you, if you can’t win Erie County then you can’t win Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. The county, which makes up the northwest corner of the state, went for Donald Trump in 2016 by about 2,000 votes. Four years later, Joe Biden prevailed here with a roughly 1,400 vote margin.

Fetterman’s path to victory would require winning blue parts of the state, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but also flattening the margins in some of the more rural areas where Democrats have bled voters in recent years.

Though Fetterman promised an issue-based campaign that he pledged would be positive, he also unleashed a torrent of criticism toward his Republican opponent. He joked about Oz’s wealth, and painted him as a carpetbagger who should be sent back to New Jersey, where the celebrity doctor has long resided.

“Who would have thought that — who would ever think — that I would be — the normal, the normal one in the race,” said Fetterman.

Fetterman was dressed in his unofficial uniform, including a black hoodie and jeans. He pushed up the sleeves revealing his tattooed arms.

Before the event, volunteers gathered outside the building by the lake and posed with a life-size cutout of the 6-foot-8-inch Fetterman.

Todd Davis, 66, a retired pastor, said he’s “concerned” about Fetterman’s health and suspects that it’s worse than the campaign is letting on. But that hardly dimmed his support, saying he just hopes he remains healthy enough to win and take office.

Other backers downplayed his health issues. Duane Churchill, 73 of Fairview, Pa., said that he’s had similarly serious health conditions and fully recovered, giving him comfort that Fetterman could do the same.

He noted that former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who he said was his favorite president, used a wheelchair and that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott does, too. “Infirmity isn’t what it once was.”

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