4 key takeaways from the Pennsylvania Senate debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz

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John Fetterman, Mehmet Oz
Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz participate in debate for US Senate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

  • John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz faced off in their first and only debate on Tuesday evening.
  • Over the course of the hour, the candidates engaged in personal attacks and policy clashes.
  • Pennsylvania’s Senate race is one of the most crucial in this year’s midterm elections.

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The long-awaited debate between Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat featured personal attacks and policy clashes, capturing the bitterness of an election that has become one of the most closely watched in the nation.

Tuesday night marked the first and only time the candidates would share a debate stage ahead of Election Day, now two weeks away. Polls show a tightening race, with Oz narrowing Fetterman’s long-held lead. The outcome of the election could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate.

Here are four key takeaways from the debate:

Fetterman acknowledges his stroke

Fetterman relied on closed captioning during the debate to aid his auditory-processing difficulties, which were brought on by a stroke he had in May. He acknowledged his health in the first few minutes of the debate, calling it “the elephant in the room.”

“I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” Fetterman said of Oz, who’s repeatedly questioned his opponent’s ability to serve.

“I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together,” Fetterman continued, “but it knocked me down, but I’m gonna keep coming back up.”

As the hour went on, Fetterman at times struggled to articulate clearly, speaking haltingly and garbling his speech. When pressed by the moderator on releasing his full medical records, Fetterman pointed to the physician’s note he released last week, which stated he’s recovering well and can carry out his duties for public office. 

The Fetterman campaign lauded his performance shortly after the debate ended.

“He did remarkably well tonight – especially when you consider that he’s still recovering from a stroke and was working off of delayed captions filled with errors,” Joe Calvello, a campaign spokesperson, said in a statement.

Oz addresses abortion

Oz, who’s called abortion “murder,” refused to directly say whether he’d support the 15-week ban on abortion proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Rather, Oz reiterated his position that he’s against any federal legislation on abortion and that decision-making should be left up to the states.

Yet through his answer, he mentioned that he wants “local political leaders,” along with women and doctors, to work together to decide abortion laws – a comment that Democrats have quickly seized on in an effort to paint Oz as extreme.

“Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz’s radical belief that ‘local political leaders’ should have as much say over a woman’s abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors,” Calvello said.

Fetterman in the debate emphasized that he supports the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and would work to codify the landmark ruling into federal law if elected.

Both support fracking, oppose expanding Supreme Court 

The candidates provided the same responses on issues that could appeal to the Keystone State’s large swath of independent swing voters.

Both Oz and Fetterman expressed their support for fracking – a technique to drill natural gas – and growing the US’ energy independence, despite providing conflicting statements on the environmental matter in the past.

Oz highlighted fracking as a means to create more jobs in Pennsylvania. Fetterman, however, was grilled on his previous remarks opposing fracking, from which he distanced himself on Tuesday evening.

“I do support fracking,” Fetterman repeatedly said.

The rivals also drew common ground on the Supreme Court, rejecting calls to expand the numbers of justices on the bench, an idea that has gained momentum on the left since former President Donald Trump’s appointments cemented a 6-3 conservative majority.

When asked about 2024, Oz and Fetterman each vowed to back Trump and President Joe Biden, respectively, should they decide to run in the presidential election.

Both candidates trade personal attacks

The opponents traded barbs throughout the debate, at times interrupting and talking over each other. Oz attacked Fetterman over crime, while Fetterman hit Oz on his wealth.

“Dr. Oz articulated how he would restore balance to Washington and find common-sense solutions to lower costs for families and make our streets safer,” Oz campaign manager Casey Contres said in a statement following the debate.

In their final statements, Fetterman said he’s fighting for the “forgotten communities” of Pennsylvania, and Oz declared himself a “candidate for change.” As Oz was addressing the economy in his closing argument, Fetterman jumped in, claiming: “You want to cut social security!”

After the moderator intervened, Oz continued, saying: “I’m the living embodiment of the American dream.”

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