Pennsylvania Senate Democratic hopeful John Fetterman and his Republican rival Dr. Mehmet Oz came out of the gate swinging Tuesday night in their only debate just two weeks before Election Day.
Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, in his opening statement said that if Oz “is on TV, he’s lying,” calling it “the Oz rule.”
Oz hit back, calling Fetterman “extreme” and accusing him of being soft on crime.
The Democrat, who is recovering from a stroke he suffered in May, appeared to struggle with his diction throughout the debate. He acknowledged his difficult recovery at the start and end of the event, saying his campaign is “all about fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and had to get back up again.”
The race to clinch the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is widely viewed as one of the most important of the midterms cycle.
Democrats see the contest in the key swing state, where President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump in 2020, as one of their best chances to flip a Republican-held seat and cling to their razor-thin Senate majority. Republicans view Toomey’s seat as a must-win piece of their plan to retake control of the upper chamber of Congress.
In their hourlong debate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the candidates fielded questions on abortion rights, raising the minimum wage, gun reform and fracking in the Keystone State.
Fetterman reiterated his support for the framework established by Roe v. Wade, the longstanding abortion precedent that was struck down by the Supreme Court over the summer.
Oz said he wants decisions on abortion left to “women, doctors, [and] local political leaders,” adding that states should decide the issue for themselves.
Fetterman said he has “always” supported fracking, and struggled to explain an apparent contradiction when a moderator noted he had previously said he “never” supported fracking.
They were also grilled on their records and past positions. Oz defended questions about whether he promoted potentially unsafe or unproven treatments on his show, saying he “provided high-quality information that empowered people.” Fetterman, said his community “all understood what happened” in response to a question about a 2013 incident when, as the mayor of Braddock, he brandished a shotgun on a Black jogger.
Each candidate accused the other of lying, and spared no punches when attacking their opponent’s personal lives. Fetterman repeatedly knocked Oz for owning numerous properties outside of Pennsylvania, while Oz accused Fetterman of failing to pay taxes.
The debate came as Oz, the celebrity doctor endorsed by Trump, has closed his polling deficit with Fetterman in the final weeks of the race.
The two candidates now appear to be in a virtual dead heat, according to averages of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.
Oz’s gains came as Fetterman recovered from a debilitating stroke in May that took him off the campaign trail for three months.
The Oz campaign, aided by tens of millions of dollars from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s PAC, has bombarded Fetterman with ads accusing him of being soft on crime and too far left for Pennsylvania. Earlier Tuesday, two other GOP groups linked to that PAC poured an additional $6.2 million into ads that will run in Pennsylvania through Election Day.
Fetterman’s campaign has blasted Oz, a wealthy TV star, as an out-of-touch carpetbagger from New Jersey who got rich by promoting sometimes-dubious health information to his audiences.
Oz’s campaign has also launched attacks on Fetterman’s health, openly questioning whether he is physically fit for office. Fetterman’s primary care physician wrote last week that the candidate “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office,” while noting he is experiencing lingering auditory processing issues.
Fetterman in recent interviews has used a closed-captioning system in order to read live transcriptions of questions as they are asked of him. His campaign warned Monday that the use of closed-captioning during the debate could lead to some awkward pauses and some transcription errors.