HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman’s rocky debate performance raised concerns in his party Wednesday as leaders assessed whether it would significantly change a race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate. and the future of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Appearing on stage five months after his stroke, Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s 53-year-old lieutenant governor, struggled to complete sentences and slurred words throughout the hour-long televised event.
It was no surprise to doctors, who noted that the format, including time limits for responses, was the opposite of what a person recovering from a stroke would need to support their communication. And for those who have known Fetterman for years, the debate was a reminder that he was never a smooth talker — even before the stroke.
But with so much riding on his campaign, some Democrats expressed concern that Fetterman’s appearance at Tuesday night’s debate was a mistake. Although he would have been criticized for skipping the forum, they believed it might have been better than exposing him in such a difficult environment—a feat that his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Ozcan use in ads and social media clips in the final days of the competition.
“In retrospect, he probably shouldn’t have debated,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said in an interview. “But the key is that he is recovering from a stroke.”
“The only way to recover from this,” he added, “is for John to go out into the public eye as much as possible, to be seen, to be interviewed and do as much as he can to let people know that he is ready to take office.”
In fact, Fetterman appeared at a rally Wednesday night on an outdoor stage in Pittsburgh, and before a crowd of what the campaign said was 3,000 people, he spoke smoothly for 13 minutes before introducing musician Dave Matthews.
Fetterman acknowledged that the debate “wasn’t exactly easy” just months after suffering a stroke.
“In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been done before in American political history,” he said.
After the debate, Fetterman said, “something remarkable happened”: The campaign raised more than $2 million. He then launched into a stump speech that both attacked Oz and aimed to turn his recovery into a way to connect with voters.
“After that hit, I got knocked down and I got back up,” Fetterman said. “And I will fight for everyone in Pennsylvania who has ever been knocked down and who has ever had to get back up.”
Fetterman is also expected to speak at a dinner Friday night in Philadelphia for the state Democratic Party headlined by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
During the debate, the Democratic Senate challenger again refused to commit to releasing his medical records, but independent experts consulted by The Associated Press said Fetterman appears to be recovering remarkably well.
“In my opinion, he did very well,” said Dr. Sonia Sheth, of Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Chicago, who watched the debate. “He had his stroke less than a year ago and will continue to recover over the next year. He had some errors in his responses, but overall he was able to formulate fluent, thoughtful responses.”
Still, the debate was hard to watch for Brooke Hatfield, a speech pathologist in Maryland who has worked extensively with stroke patients.
“Putting a timer on someone adds pressure to a system that’s already working hard,” Hatfield said. “Ultimately, it’s important to remember that changes in communication are different from changes in intelligence, reasoning, and other cognitive skills.”
So far, the political consequences of the debate are unclear.
The Pennsylvania contest represents the Democratic Party’s best opportunity to flip a Senate seat currently held by Republicans who are aggressively challenging Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. Any shift in Pennsylvania, where at least 639,000 mail-in ballots have already been returned, could jeopardize the Democratic bid to retain the Senate, which they hold by the narrowest of margins.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told CNN Wednesday that the debate was “hard to watch, frankly.”
But he said voters have a “stark choice” between Fetterman and Oz, a heart surgeon and television personality.
Other U.S. senators have experienced strokes, but none faced tough competition so quickly. Both Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Ben Ray Lujan, DN.M., revealed this year that they suffered minor strokes. Van Hollen is likely to easily win re-election in his deeply Democratic state this year, and Lujan isn’t on the ballot again until 2026.
Former Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and would go on to lose his re-election bid four years later.
Over the years, many other senators have faced questions about their age. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa would be 95 at the end of his next term, assuming he wins re-election on Nov. 8.
Fetterman’s campaign and other Democrats sought to focus Wednesday on Oz’s comments about abortion during the debate. The Republican said he wanted abortion access determined by “women, doctors, local political leaders,” a comment that suggested he believed there was a role for public officials in determining whether women can obtain the procedure, which remains legal in Pennsylvania.
Fetterman’s new ad focuses on Oz’s reference to “local political leaders,” repeating the phrase three times in 30 seconds.
“Oz would let politicians like Doug Mastriano ban abortions with no exceptions,” the narrator says, referring to the state’s polarizing Republican candidate for governor. “Oz is too extreme for Pennsylvania.”
Biden shared the new ad on social media.
The White House would not say whether Biden watched the debate. But press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden has found Fetterman “as capable as ever” of governing.
“In his conversations that he’s had with Lt. Gov. Fetterman, he finds the lieutenant governor to be a strong and authentic advocate for the middle class,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that the president “finds him incredibly impressive.”
Meanwhile, Oz attended an event Wednesday in the state capital with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, a potential Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Oz avoided Fetterman’s health at the event, as he did during the debate, and instead focused on crime.
“I pledge here and now that as a United States Senator I will do the right thing for our community,” he declared. “Among them, I want the police to do their job. I want our prosecutors to do their job.”
But the debate was on the minds of many voters.
Barbara Orr, a psychotherapist and registered Democrat who supports Fetterman, said she and a group of like-minded friends who watched the debate were upset and nervous but unwavering in their decision to vote for him.
Her “heart hurt for him,” she said, and she worried that voters unfamiliar with the candidates might take away a bad impression.
“Unfortunately, people who don’t know what he stands for and haven’t heard him anywhere else might think he’s not smart,” said Orr, who lives in Lampeter.
She added: “I hope some people at least put on their empathy pants and realized he’s trying to recover from something.”
Democratic voter Frank Mallon, a 61-year-old driving instructor who lives in suburban Philadelphia, said Fetterman “became unsure of himself.”
“Yes, I know about the handicap,” Mallon said. “Do I think everyone who watched that debate knows about his disability? No I do not.”
He said he would still vote for Fetterman.
Fetterman’s allies noted that he had also performed poorly in a primary debate earlier this year before the stroke.
“It has to be settled with people for a moment. People on the Democratic side were afraid of what was going to happen,” said Jamie Perrapato, executive director of Turn PA Blue. “His performance was actually better than I expected.”
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how many Pennsylvania voters were paying much attention.
Bonnie Chang, a telecommunications retiree from Doylestown who describes herself as a liberal Fetterman supporter, disagreed.
“I was so scared I didn’t watch the debate,” Chang said. “First and foremost, Oz is a TV guy. He’s honed his skills. … I think Fetterman is in a no-win situation. He’s recovering from a stroke.”
“I’m willing to give him time to recover.”
People reported from New York. Washington state AP writers Carla K. Johnson; Jessie Wardarski in Pittsburgh; Mike Catalini in Morrisville, Pennsylvania; and Seung Min Kim in Washington, DC, contributed.
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