Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor John Fetterman and TV personality Mehmet Oz met for their only pre-election debate, in what was perhaps the most closely watched match ups of all U.S. Senate candidates this midterm cycle.
As high as the stakes were, as viewers were reminded that their race could determine who controls the upper chamber, the debate was unusual in that Fetterman, who suffered a stroke last spring, is still recovering, and needed the assistance of a captioning screen, shown to the audience beforehand.
Right off the bat, Fetterman signaled to viewers what they would see and hear: “Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He has never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together. It knocked me down, but I am going to keep coming back up.”
At times, he did stumble on words and struggle to craft sentences, at a number of times hindering his ability to go on offense against Oz. He finished his debate by talking of how he was “fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and had to get back up again.”
There has been considerable debate over how much of an issue should be made of Fetterman’s condition and recovery, particularly since he sat for an interview earlier this month with NBC News. Oz’s campaign last summer seemed to mock it when a spokesperson told Insider, “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
Oz has since tried to distance himself from the remarks, but he still criticized Fetterman during the debate for not taking questions from potential voters or talking to reporters — even though, in the latter case, he has sat for interviews.
And as Leland Vittert, anchoring NewsNation’s coverage of the debate, noted afterward, Oz seemed to be talking faster, something that makes it more difficult for transcribers to keep up in their captioning.
As unique the circumstances may have been for the debate, they were not unprecedented. After suffering a stroke, Mark Kirk, the Republican senator from Illinois, faced rival Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs in Iraq, in a 2016 debate. He made a quip about how both needed the assistance of a wheelchair, but their physical challenges otherwise were not an issue.
But it was a greater issue at this debate, as Fetterman was asked by one of the moderators whether he would release his medical records. He said that he released a note from his doctor attesting to his fitness to serve. “For me transparency is about showing up. I am here today to have a debate.” He also seemed to get in a dig at Oz, saying that the “real doctors” all believe “that I am ready to serve.”
For his part, Oz didn’t quite answer about one of his liabilities, that he’s used his TV show to promote questionable treatments.
“The show did very well because it provided high-quality information that empowered people, which is exactly what I want to do when I’m a senator,” he said. Asked if he had profited by promoting the products, he said, “I never sold weight loss products as described in those commercials. It’s a television show like this is a television show, so people can run commercials on the shows, and that is a perfectly appropriate and transparent process.”
As far as substance, the debate itself was rather so-so, rarely getting into the nuts and bolts of policy. More often than not, candidates used their time to attack the other as if they were engaged in a 280-character Twitter exchange. It would not be much of a surprise if the event drew a small audience, even in the Keystone state, as most viewers will be exposed to it via news clips or, given the millions yet to be poured into the race, a flood of accusatory ads.