The Debate That Could Push Pennsylvania

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz greets supporters following a community discussion in Philadelphia (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

It has long been clear that control of the U.S. Senate could come down to the race in Pennsylvania. With Republican Mehmet Oz surging—and lingering questions about Democrat John Fetterman’s health—Tuesday’s night’s debate is shaping up to be a key moment in that key race. 

Oz now trails Fetterman by 1-2 points in most polls. A month ago, the Republican lagged Fetterman by roughly 8 points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. With the race a toss-up, a poor debate performance so close to Election Day could affect the news cycle even if viewership is low and with early voting already underway. 

Fetterman, is expected to zero in on Oz’s celebrity television background and new reporting from Rolling Stone that claims former President Donald Trump plans to contest Republican midterm losses. Abortion is another lightning rod in the race: Oz identifies as “strongly pro-life” but supports exceptions for rape and incest, while Fetterman has said repeatedly that he opposes abortion restrictions of any kind at any point in the pregnancy.

Throughout the campaign, Fetterman has characterized Oz as a rich  carpetbagger from New Jersey who is out-of-touch with working-class voters. In recent months, though, rising crime has become a central talking point in the race. Oz, whose campaign has called Fetterman the “most pro-murderer candidate in America,” points to the Democratic’s previous tenure on the board of pardons as a warning to voters that the Democrat will be soft on crime. 

“The crime issue is an open sore politically, for John Fetterman, and both his campaign and Oz’s campaign recognize that,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant. That’s why Oz and outside GOP groups “have put out so many ads on crime and why Fetterman’s campaign continues to put out responses that keep fumbling the issue.”

But the most significant questions surround Fetterman’s health. Is he well enough to serve as a U.S. senator after suffering a life-threatening stroke in May that kept him off the campaign trail for months? He plans to use closed-captioning software onstage to aid lingering stroke-induced auditory processing difficulties.

The Fetterman campaign has tempered debate watchers’ expectations by acknowledging the Democratic candidate’s struggles and reminding voters that Oz’s campaign has repeatedly mocked his recovery on the campaign trail.  

“We’ll admit — this isn’t John’s format,” Fetterman campaign aides said in a Monday email to reporters that called Oz a “media-savvy performer” who has spent most of his career in front of the camera. “If we’re all being honest, Oz clearly comes into Tuesday night with a huge built-in advantage.”

That low bar could benefit Fetterman, who’s spent the past few weeks laying the groundwork for Tuesday’s event.  “What kind of a doctor loves seeing somebody that was sick stay sick?” Fetterman said to a crowd of supporters in his hometown of York, Pennsylvania, earlier this month. “What kind of campaign is he running on how many misses I might miss?”

Questions about Fetterman’s recovery reemerged after he sat for an interview with NBC reporter Dasha Burns, who said on-air that before the interview Fetterman “had a hard time understanding our conversations”—an observation Fetterman’s wife later called “ableist.”

Several days after the interview, his campaign released a note from his primary care physician, who evaluated him on October 15, insisting he was fit to serve in the Senate. It was the first update from a doctor the campaign had released since June.

Nicholas, the GOP consultant, says the Fetterman campaign’s struggle to publicly define the Democratic candidate’s health challenges could benefit Oz. “Here’s the problem now with the Fetterman campaign: They can’t decide internally whether he’s fine. Or whether he’s disabled,” Nicholas said. “One day, ‘He is disabled give him a break. A lot of people have this.’ The next day, ‘Oh his doctor says he’s fine.’”

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