Fetterman struggles during TV debate with Oz

“If you believe that the choice for abortion belongs between you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,” Fetterman said. “Roe v. Wade, for me, is should be the law. He celebrated when Roe v. Wade went down, and my campaign would fight for Roe v. Wade and, if given the opportunity, to codify it into law.”

The event, the first and only time Oz and Fetterman will spar one-on-one, was billed as the most closely watched debate in the country this year. It marked the first time that voters were able to watch Fetterman unscripted on live television for an hour after he suffered a stroke in May. Because he still struggles to understand speech, Fetterman relied on closed captioning so that he could follow the conversation as he continues to recover from the health setback.

The debate was held as the race, which could determine the balance of power in the Senate, has narrowed to a coin flip. Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, is ahead of Oz, a celebrity doctor, by only 1 to 2 percentage points in polling averages.

Fetterman experienced a stroke just days before the state’s May primary, and his aides were not fully forthcoming about his condition in the immediate aftermath. They did not announce that he had a stroke for two days, and it wasn’t until June that they revealed he had a previously undisclosed heart condition.

Since then, Fetterman’s campaign has not allowed reporters to interview his doctors and has been reluctant to release his medical records. But Fetterman has acknowledged that he sometimes mumbles words together and has difficulty understanding words spoken by others because of an auditory processing disorder.

Those difficulties were on display during the debate, with Fetterman sometimes struggling to complete sentences, stumbling over words and pausing altogether.

Fetterman has said that he is 100 percent capable of serving in the US Senate, and that his health is continuing to improve. He has also argued that he has been transparent about his condition, making the case that his rallies and interviews with reporters provide voters with a firsthand look at his recovery.

Last week, Fetterman released a letter from his primary doctor, Clifford Chen, who said that he “spoke intelligently without cognitive deficits” and that he “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.” Chen said that Fetterman’s speech was “normal” but that “he continues to exhibit symptoms of an auditory processing disorder which can come across as hearing difficulty.”

In June, Fetterman disclosed another letter from his cardiologist, which said that “if he takes his medications, eats healthy, and exercises, he’ll be fine.”

At the debate, people transcribed the conversation in real time to provide closed captions to Fetterman, which allowed him to read the moderators’ questions and Oz’s responses on a screen. In talks with the news media, Fetterman has used Google Meet for closed captioning.

The moderators told the audience about the accommodations at the beginning of the debate, and the closed-captioning screens were visible at times during the event. Both Fetterman and Oz could see the captions.

Oz had pushed for more debates, and for them to be held earlier. Amid pressure from media outlets to commit to debating, Fetterman announced in early September that he would participate in one face-off with Oz.

In 2016, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty squared off during two debates, the first of which was held Oct. 17. Republicans have said that this year’s debates should have been scheduled before then because no-excuse mail voting is now legal in the state.

The stakes were high for both parties on Tuesday night. The open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, which is currently held by Pat Toomey, is seen as the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity. If Republicans fail to keep it in their column, it will become much more difficult for them to win back control of the Senate.

Underscoring how critical Pennsylvania is to the GOP’s path back to the majority, the top Senate Republican super PAC last week canceled nearly $6 million in ad reservations in New Hampshire — and on Tuesday, groups tied to the PAC said they would invest nearly the same amount of money in Pennsylvania. Going into the debate, Oz also faced questions about alleged animal abuse, his abortion position and a report that former President Donald Trump told advisers he needed the Republican in office in the event the 2024 election is challenged.

Prior to Tuesday, Fetterman’s campaign and his allies worked for weeks to lower expectations. In a memo sent to reporters on Monday, Fetterman’s campaign manager, Brendan McPhillips, and an adviser, Rebecca Katz, quoted a news article that said he “wasn’t great” at debates even before his stroke.

“We’ll admit — this isn’t John’s format,” they wrote, adding that Oz “clearly comes into Tuesday night with a huge built-in advantage.”

During the Democratic Senate primary, Fetterman was widely seen as less polished in debates than his top opponents, although he had no major stumbles during them.

Democrats have said privately that they believe that Fetterman could benefit from lowered expectations due to his health condition and Oz’s campaign casting him as unfit to serve. Republican activists have also circulated videos on social media highlighting Fetterman’s verbal stumbles.

Fetterman spoke with POLITICO for about 17 minutes in September via Google Meet, during which he used closed captioning. He missed some words, but talked at a normal pace and answered a number of questions on a range of different topics.

In recent weeks, Fetterman has ramped up his campaign schedule and given longer speeches at his rallies, a contrast from the summer, when he did not hold public events for months while recovering from his stroke.

Some Republicans tried to raise expectations in the days before the debate. Stephen Miller, the former Trump White House adviser, said on Twitter ahead of the event that anything “less than 10/10 from JF is a giant fail,” pointing to his time in office and use of closed captioning.

The debate was hosted by ABC27 and held in Harrisburg in a studio with no audience.