Five months of John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz sparring over whether the Democrat is healthy enough to hold office or whether or not the Republican lives in New Jersey culminated in a debate Tuesday night that could tip the scales in the crucial Senate contest in Pennsylvania — and maybe for control of the Senate itself. Over an hour, the candidates sparred over abortion access and flip-flopping records in Fetterman’s most prominent public appearance since he suffered a stroke days before the Democratic primary in May. Below are some key moments from the candidates’ one and only debate before Election Day.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room”
After the moderators explained that the campaigns agreed to a closed-captioning monitor so Fetterman could read the questions and Oz’s responses, Fetterman said in his introductory statement that the recovery from his stroke is “the elephant in the room.”
“I’ve had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” said Fetterman, of his opponent who has attacked his fitness on the campaign trail. In a statement released by his campaign earlier this month, Fetterman’s doctor said he speaks “intelligently without cognitive deficits,” though he has an auditory processing disorder that “can come across as hearing difficulty.”
The Democrat was able to get through many of his prepared statements without trouble, stating that “I’m running to serve Pennsylvania, he’s running to use Pennsylvania” and that he is “fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and had to get back up again.” But there were also times in the blazing-fast debate when he delayed in responding to impromptu questions — a common symptom of aphasia — and often answered the moderators with jumbled language.
The difference between the two candidates’ debate performances was stark. Leading up to the event, Fetterman’s campaign had worked to lower expectations, including highlighting how Oz is a man who has made his career speaking directly to the camera on television. (That expectation-lowering continued after the debate, as well.)
Oz, whose campaign has been pretty vicious in hitting Fetterman as he recovers from his stroke, mostly avoided discussing the matter during the debate — except for one jab in which he said, “Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this.”
Fetterman dodges on releasing his medical records
Fetterman’s doctor has stated that he can serve “full duty” in office and that the auditory processing issues he is experiencing are common in people recovering from strokes. But when asked if he would release his full medical records, Fetterman demurred. “To me, full transparency is showing up,” he said, citing his campaign speeches across the state in recent months. He also said that if his doctor says he’s “fit to serve,” “that’s what I believe is appropriate.”
The elephant who wasn’t in the room
Oz did not make a big deal out of his endorsement from Donald Trump, which is a coveted thing for a Republican candidate to have in a non-swing-state race. Asked if he would back Trump in 2024, Oz said he would “support whoever the Republican Party puts up.”
Throughout the night, Oz tried to keep his distance from the former president and hot-button Republican policies that have given Democrats hope in this weird election cycle. (On several occasions, Oz presented himself as an outsider candidate — though he avoided allegations that he actually lives outside Pennsylvania.)
On abortion, Oz wants to defer to “women, doctors, local political leaders”
When asked if he would support Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill banning nearly all abortions after 15 weeks, Oz said he doesn’t “want the federal government involved,” but wants “women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive, to put the best ideas forward so that states can decide for themselves.”
Fetterman responded that he supported Roe v. Wade and that “if you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr. Oz, then you have a choice. But if you believe that the choice for abortion belongs between you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for.”
A fracking mess
Aside from the advantage of making his name on television, Oz also had the advantage of not having a record that his opponent could tie him to. Fetterman, the sitting lieutenant governor, did not enjoy that advantage, which led to a tough exchange over his position on fracking — a major industry in Pennsylvania over the past decade.
Oz’s Eagle pose didn’t fly
Fetterman had a quip he relied on whenever Oz tried to paint his record in an unflattering light: “If he’s on TV, he’s lying.” That wasn’t accurate for everything the Republican candidate said on Tuesday, but it rang true for the last question of the night. When asked if the candidates supported the Steelers or the Eagles as their preferred Pennsylvania football team, Fetterman responded as a confident Steelers man. Oz went with the Eagles, butchering the team’s motto along the way.