The much-anticipated Pennsylvania Senate debate on Tuesday night was a fast-paced event that focused on policy questions and was sometimes interrupted by attacks from the candidates. This is a key race for who will control the upper chamber of Congress, which is evenly split.
The debate also brought up Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s stroke symptoms and what he said was his strength and recovery from what he called a “significant but not disqualifying challenge.”
As Fetterman took the stage, many people watched to see how he was doing. During the whole debate, he spoke slowly and sometimes in a way that didn’t make sense. This was even worse than when he spoke at campaign events since he returned to the campaign trail in August, three months after his stroke. At times, it looked like he was struggling to finish his answers and say clearly what the policy goals were.
Two monitors were hung above the moderators’ heads to transcribe the questions and Republican Mehmet Oz’s answers in real-time. This was done to help Fetterman, who has trouble processing what he hears. Neurologists from outside the debate have said that this is not a sign of cognitive problems in stroke survivors.
Fetterman has worked with a speech therapist, and his doctor said last week that he was ready for “full duty” in the office. However, he has refused to release his medical records.
On Tuesday, Fetterman paused a few times, but not often, before answering a question as he read the transcription.
Soon after the debate began, he talked about his stroke and how his opponent’s campaign team has sometimes made fun of him because of it.
“Let’s get straight to the point: I had a stroke. “He’s never let me forget that,” Fetterman said in his opening remarks, setting up a line he would use several times over the next hour. “It knocked me down, but I’ll get back up again and again.”
Oz, a popular TV host who used to be a surgeon and called himself “a living example of the American dream,” did not talk about his opponent’s health on stage.
Both candidates had to answer for their contradictory views. For example, each was shown comments they had made in the past about fracking that were different from what they had said on the campaign trail.
When asked about comments he made against fracking in 2014, Oz said, “I strongly support fracking.” Thousands of Pennsylvanians work in the industry, but it gets a lot of attention because of how it affects the environment.
Moderators also asked Fetterman to explain how he could support fracking now when he had said harsh things about it in 2018.
“I’ve always been in favour of fracking,” he said.
Fetterman said awkwardly, “I do support fracking… I do support fracking,” when asked about the difference.
When asked about the issues on which their campaigns were based, he and Oz also tried to take advantage.
When the talk turned to abortion access, Fetterman said, “I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania.”
“If you think your reproductive freedom belongs to Dr Oz, then you have a choice,” Fetterman said, contrasting his views with those of his opponent, who is against abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s health and has said he wants it limited but not criminalised.
“Roe v. Wade should be the law,” Fetterman said, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision this summer to overturn the national guarantee of abortion rights.
Fetterman, on the other hand, would not answer questions about whether he would support any limits on abortion, even in the later trimesters.
The moderators kept asking Oz if he would support South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to ban abortions after 15 weeks, with a few exceptions, everywhere in the country.
Oz, as he has done with reporters, didn’t say yes or no. Instead, he said he didn’t want the federal government to be in charge of the issue and that women, their doctors, and local politicians should decide.
Oz finally said, “I would vote against any bill that goes against what I said, which is that the federal government shouldn’t get in the way of a state law on abortion.”
On the issue of crime, which he has used to close his huge polling gap, Oz talked about how he has the support of multiple police unions in the state, while Fetterman defended himself against claims that he is soft on crime. He said that Oz, who said he was too easy on criminals when it came to giving them parole, had “no experience” with public safety.
Fetterman said that when he was mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, he had worked to stop gun violence and had a history of doing so.
“We should be talking about crime and inflation, which are things that hurt Pennsylvanians,” said Oz. During the debate, he talked about a plan to “unleash” the state’s energy industry, which he thought would raise wages, help businesses, and bring down high prices.
Oz gave the example of a woman who couldn’t buy groceries anymore because the cost of living was going up. He said this was a sad situation.
He said that Fetterman was a “radical” who wouldn’t pay attention to the budget and would raise taxes. On the other hand, he would try to make Washington more “balanced.”
“I’m a surgeon, not a politician. “We focus on big problems and solve them,” Oz said near the end of the debate. And we do it by working together and not by fighting with each other. That’s how we get ahead.”
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Fetterman said Oz wouldn’t have voted for the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act in Congress, which lets Medicare negotiate some prescription drug prices. He used Oz’s wealth and lack of roots in Pennsylvania as evidence. He said Oz wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare over and over, which Oz said was not true. Oz said that one of Fetterman’s ads had been taken down because it wasn’t telling the truth.
Fetterman said, “He has 10 huge houses.” “We have to stand up to corporate greed. We also need to make sure we’re not letting prices go up too much.”
Fetterman didn’t answer when asked how he planned to go after companies that raise prices too much. Instead, he talked about how “inflation is hurting Americans” and how Oz “has never been able to stand up for working families all across America.”
Fetterman said in another place that he was in favour of a law that would raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is more than double what it is now. Oz said he wanted the minimum wage to be even higher than that, not because of law but because of how his plan for the state’s energy companies would work.
The two candidates had different ideas about how important it is to forgive federal student loans, which Fetterman supports. Oz, on the other hand, said he had a clearer plan for lowering the cost of college, which included offering online classes.
What the campaigns say after the debate
After Oz’s pleas and criticism, Fetterman only agreed to meet with him on Tuesday. “This is the only debate I could get you to come to talk to me on,” Oz said on stage. Fetterman’s campaign tried to lower expectations for his performance by telling reporters in a memo on Monday that debating “isn’t John’s format” and pointing out Oz’s years on TV.
Tuesday night, as soon as the debate was over, his campaign team got to work to, in their words, “boast” about how well he had done.
Joe Calvello, a spokesman, told reporters, “We are thrilled with John’s performance.”
The campaign said late Tuesday that it would run an ad criticising Oz for an answer he gave about abortion access. In that answer, Oz said that policy should be decided democratically by the states, but that “a woman, a doctor, and local political leaders” should also be involved.
The Oz camp, on the other hand, said that they had won.
“John Fetterman did a terrible job tonight in the debate,” adviser Barney Keller told reporters. “He couldn’t defend any of his extreme ideas, and it was very clear.”
Wednesday, both candidates will be out on the campaign trail again. The election is in less than two weeks, and early voting has been going on for a while.
Polls had gotten much closer by Tuesday, with the average from FiveThirtyEight showing Fetterman ahead by less than 3 points, down from almost 11 points six weeks ago.
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