Fetterman and Oz face off in Pennsylvania Senate debate on abortion, inflation, crime, more

The highly anticipated debate in the Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday night was a fast-paced affair focused on policy issues interspersed with — and sometimes punctuated by — the candidates’ attacks that have defined a key race for control of Congress’s evenly divided upper chamber.

The faceoff also put Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s stroke symptoms back in the spotlight, as well as what he said was his resilience and recovery from, as he put it, a remarkable but not disqualifying challenge.

Many eyes were on Fetterman’s health when he took the stage. He spoke haltingly and at times incoherently throughout the debate, even more so than he has at campaign events since returning to the track in August, three months after his stroke. At times he seemed to struggle to complete his answers.

Two monitors were hung above the heads of the moderators to transcribe both the questions and Republican Mehmet Oz’s answers in real time as an aid to Fetterman’s auditory processing problems, which outside neurologists have said are no indication of cognitive problems for stroke survivors.

Fetterman has worked with a speech therapist; his doctor said last week he was ready for “full duty” in office, though he has declined to release his medical records.

Several times Tuesday, but not often, there was a pause before Fetterman answered a question as he read the transcript.

Shortly after the debate began, he invoked his stroke and the sometimes mocking criticism he has faced because of it from his rival’s campaign team.

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PHOTO: Members of the media watch Republican candidate Mehmet Oz on a television screen as he faces Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman during the candidates' only debate in Harrisburg, Penn., Oct. 25, 2022.

Members of the media watch Republican candidate Mehmet Oz on a television screen as he faces Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman during the candidates’ only debate in Harrisburg, Penn., Oct. 25, 2022.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget it,” Fetterman said in his opening remarks, striking up a line he would repeat during the hour. “It knocked me down, but I keep getting back up.”

Oz, a former surgeon and popular TV host who described himself as “a living embodiment of the American dream,” did not mention his opponent’s health on stage.

Both candidates were forced to answer for inconsistent views on policies: For example, each was presented with past comments about fracking that contradict what they’ve said on the topic on the trail.

“I strongly support fracking,” Oz said when asked about comments he made in 2014 arguing against the industry, which employs thousands of Pennsylvania workers but is studying its environmental effects.

Fetterman was also asked by moderators to square his recent public support for fracking with comments he made in 2018 sharply criticizing it.

“I’ve always supported fracking,” he insisted.

Of the discrepancy, Fetterman awkwardly said, “I do support fracking … I do support fracking.”

He and Oz also tried to take advantage when asked about the issues on which they have hinged their candidacies.

“I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said as the debate shifted to abortion access.

“If you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs to Dr. Oz, then you have a choice,” Fetterman said, contrasting his views with his opponent, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s health and has said , that he wants it limited, but not criminalized.

“Roe v. Wade, to me, should be the law,” Fetterman added, referring to the national guarantee of abortion rights that was overturned by the Supreme Court this summer.

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Fetterman and Oz face off in Pennsylvania Senate debate on abortion, inflation, crime, more

A handout photo provided by abc27 shows Democratic candidate Lt. Govt. John Fetterman (L) and Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) shakes hands before the Nexstar Pennsylvania Senate Debate at WHTM abc27 in Harrisburg, Penn., Oct. 25, 2022.

Greg Nash, Handout via EPA via Shutterstock

However, Fetterman avoided questions about whether he would support any restrictions on abortion, including in the later trimester.

The moderators continually followed up with Oz on whether he would support South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal to introduce a nationwide ban on abortion, with limited exceptions, after 15 weeks.

Oz, as he has done with reporters, declined to answer yes or no, saying instead that he opposed federal control of the issue and preferred that it be left up to the states — to women, their doctors and local politicians, he said .

“Any law that violates what I said, which is the federal government interfering with a state rule on abortion, I would vote against,” Oz finally admitted.

On crime, meanwhile — an issue he has capitalized on as he has closed his gaping polling gap — Oz touted the endorsements of several state police unions, while Fetterman defended himself against accusations of being soft on crime. He argued that Oz, who said he had a lax record of granting parole to convicts, had “no experience” in public safety.

Fetterman said that as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, he had successfully worked to curb gun violence and had a track record of solving such problems.

“We should be talking about crime and inflation — the problems that are hurting Pennsylvanians,” said Oz, who at several points in the debate touted a plan to “free up” the state’s energy industry to, he envisioned, raise wages, strengthen businesses and help lower high prices.

Oz cited an example of a woman who could no longer afford her groceries given the rising cost of living — a dire problem, he said.

PHOTO: Members of the media prepare to cover the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Republican candidate Mehmet Oz in Harrisburg, Penn., Oct. 25, 2022.

Members of the media prepare to cover the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Republican candidate Mehmet Oz in Harrisburg, Penn., Oct. 25, 2022.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock

Fetterman, he said, was a “radical” who would not be budget conscious and would raise taxes. On the other hand, he wanted to promote “balance” in Washington.

“I’m a surgeon, not a politician. We take big problems, we focus on them and we solve them,” Oz said late in the debate. And we do that by uniting, by coming together — not dividing — and by doing that we move forward.”

Fetterman said Oz — whom he often tried to paint as a liar — would not have voted for the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act in Congress, which allows Medicare to negotiate some prescription drugs, and he cited Oz’s wealth and relative lack of roots. in Pennsylvania. He repeatedly claimed that Oz wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, which Oz said was a baseless claim. Oz said one of Fetterman’s ads had been pulled for being “dishonest”.

“He has 10 giant mansions,” Fetterman said. “We have to push back against corporate greed. We also have to make sure that we also push back against price gouging.”

When asked to explain his plan to attack companies that cut prices, Fetterman did not respond, speaking more broadly about how “inflation is hurting Americans” and how Oz “has never been able to stand up for working families across America.”

Elsewhere, Fetterman said he supported legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current rate. Oz said he wanted the minimum wage even higher than that, but driven by market forces, not a law, via his plan for state energy companies.

The two candidates split on the value of federal student loan forgiveness — which Fetterman supports — while Oz argued that he had a more defined plan to lower the cost of college, including offering online tuition.

The campaigns react after debate

Tuesday was the only event Fetterman agreed to after Oz’s pleas and criticism — “this is the only debate I could get you to talk to me about,” Oz said on stage — and ahead of it, Fetterman’s campaign tried to lower expectations for his performance, with two top staffers telling reporters in a memo Monday that the debate is “not John’s format,” citing Oz’s years on television.

In the minutes just after the faceoff ended Tuesday night, his campaign team mobilized to — in their words — share how he had performed.

“We are thrilled with John’s performance,” spokesman Joe Calvello told reporters.

The campaign announced late Tuesday that it planned to run an ad targeting Oz for one of his answers on abortion access, in which he said policy should be democratically decided by states but more specifically involve “a woman, a doctor and local political leaders.”

The Oz camp, meanwhile, declared victory.

“We saw tonight a debate that was a complete disaster for John Fetterman,” adviser Barney Keller told reporters. “He was unable to defend any of his radical positions, and it really showed.”

Both candidates will be back on the stump Wednesday, with Election Day less than two weeks away and early voting well under way.

Heading into Tuesday, polls had narrowed significantly, with FiveThirtyEight’s average now showing Fetterman ahead by less than 3 points, down from nearly 11 points six weeks ago.

Will McDuffie is one of seven ABC News campaign reporters embedded in battleground states across the country. See all the twists and turns of covering the midterm elections every Sunday on Hulu’s “Power Trip: Those Seeking Power and Those Who Chase Them” with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

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