Fetterman, Oz face crime, inflation in Pennsylvania Senate debate

HARRISBURG, Penn., Oct 25 (Reuters) – U.S. Senate candidates Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz traded attacks on issues from crime to inflation in the lone debate in a Pennsylvania race that will help decide whether Democrats retain control of the Senate.

Fetterman, the state’s 53-year-old lieutenant governor, has since lost his lead in the polls to Oz, a 62-year-old celebrity doctor backed by Donald Trump, as worries about rising inflation have helped sour voters on President Joe Biden’s Democrats. ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

The debate represents a major political test for Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May that left persistent problems with his speech and hearing that sometimes cause verbal errors. The debate room included two closed-caption screens that were posted above the moderators and relayed the dialogue to Fetterman.

Fetterman, who spoke haltingly and repeated sentences at times, addressed his health issues in his opening statement, calling it the elephant in the room.

“I had a stroke. [Oz] never let me forget it. And I might miss some words during this debate, mix up two words, but it knocked me over, but I keep getting back up,” Fetterman said.

He later refused to commit to releasing his private medical records. “Openness is about showing up. I’m here for the debate,” he said.

U.S. inflation has hit 40-year highs, hurting consumers and forcing Democrats like Fetterman to defend an issue that polls show is voters’ top concern. Oz and Republicans have tried to tie Democrats’ big spending bills that fight issues including COVID-19 and climate change to rising consumer prices.

Oz said his experience as a heart surgeon taught him how to make tough decisions.

“I’m also going to have them cut our budget to make sure we don’t have to raise taxes on a population that is already desperately suffering from high inflation,” Oz said.

Fetterman questioned whether Oz can really empathize with American families.

Calling inflation a tax on working families, he said, “Dr. Oz can’t possibly understand what it’s like.”

Fetterman said the rising costs only strengthen his support for a $15 federal minimum wage, something Oz opposes enacting into law.

The two talked about the issue of abortion.

Oz, who opposes abortion but supports exceptions for rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in danger, was pressed on whether he would support a measure put forward by US Senator Lindsey Graham that would ban all abortions after 15 weeks.

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

Fetterman has said he would support codifying the Roe v. Wade decision, which was overturned by the Supreme Court this year, if elected, and would do away with the legislative procedure known as the filibuster, which requires that 60 of the 100 senators agree on most of the legislation.

“If you believe that the choice about abortion belongs to you and your doctor, that’s what I’m fighting for,” Fetterman said.

A CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released Tuesday ahead of the debate showed Fetterman leading Oz by just 2 points, 51% to 49%, down from his 5-point lead in mid-September. The race has been among the most expensive in the country, with Fetterman raising $48 million through September and Oz raising $35 million, including millions of his money.

The race to succeed retiring Republican Pat Toomey is the Democrats’ best hope of gaining ground in the 50-50 Senate, which they control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie vote.

A win in Pennsylvania could offset losses elsewhere as Democrats defend embattled incumbents in states including Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. Republican control of either the House or the Senate would be enough to stop Biden’s legislative agenda.

Oz tried to pin Fetterman on his position on natural gas fracking, a major industry in Pennsylvania that is often opposed by liberals and environmentalists. Fetterman once supported a ban on fracking.

Pressed by the moderators about why he changed his fracking views, Fetterman was briefly at a loss for words, then repeated the phrase: “I support fracking.”

Democrats had been betting that reproductive rights would be an animating issue in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, but the latest data from the Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that inflation and the economy are far and away the most pressing issues among them , who say they are likely to vote.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell, Lincoln Feast & Shri Navaratnam

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