Abortion rights take center stage as Oz and Fetterman face off in Pennsylvania Senate debate

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Abortion rights took center stage during the debate for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday night, as celebrity doctor and Republican candidate Mehmet Oz said decisions on abortion should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders”, while John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, criticized the GOP’s tough stance.

The debate in Harrisburg began with Oz, a former surgeon and longtime host of the Dr. Oz TV show, discussing his desire to make “Washington civil again.” The Trump-backed Republican said he wanted to “unify, not divide.”

But Oz was soon reverting to a 2022 Republican playbook characterized by pugnacity in races across the United States, as it called Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, a “left-wing extremist” who had “positions radicals”.

Related: Are the Democrats messing up their midterm message? Our panel answers you

It set the tone for a contentious evening as the pair clashed over abortion, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage – which, at $7.25, is lower than each of its six bordering states – and the economy, in what has become one of the most watched elections in the United States. .

Fetterman and Oz are vying to replace Pat Toomey, a retired Republican, and with the Senate evenly split between the two parties, the two are desperate to win in a state Joe Biden won by 80,000 votes in 2020.

It was Fetterman’s most high-profile appearance of the campaign, since he suffered a stroke in mid-May which left him with auditory processing issues, where the brain struggles understand the spoken word.

To accommodate Fetterman’s condition, which he says is improving daily, two 70-inch monitors were placed above moderators’ heads, which displayed the transcribed text of their questions and the text of the Oz answers.

John Fetterman participating in the Pennsylvania Senate debate

John Fetterman participated in the debate with the help of monitors who showed the transcribed texts of the questions and answers. Photograph: Greg Nash/EPA

“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room,” Fetterman said in his opening remarks. “I had a stroke. He [Oz] never let me forget it.

The Democrat was referring to the Republican campaign launching unsavory attacks on Fetterman, with Oz aide Rachel Tripp saying Fetterman might not have had a stroke if he “already had ate a vegetable in his life”. In the August Oz campaign published what he said were “concessions” he was willing to make during a debate with Fetterman, which included a promise to “pay any additional medical staff he might need on standby”.

Oz has since attempted to distance himself from the tone of his campaign, but recently said on Fox Business, “I don’t think there’s any captioning on the Senate floor.”

Fetterman, 53, released a report from his doctor last week saying he “has no work restrictions and can work full-time in public service”, but the doctor noted that Fetterman was struggling to process certain words.

In a TV interview in early October, Fetterman said he sometimes misses words or “boils” words together when he speaks, and there were times when his language issues elocution were noticeable during the debate. The Democrat seemed to struggle with some words and took longer than Oz to answer questions while reading the on-screen captions.

“It knocked me down but I’m going to keep coming back up,” Fetterman said of the stroke on Tuesday. “And this campaign is, for me, about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania who has ever been knocked down and needs to get back up.”

The couple were asked about abortion at the start of the debate. Nationally, Democrats have drawn attention to Republicans’ role in overturning the historic Roe v. Wade decision in June of this year. Republicans, especially in politically moderate states like Pennsylvania, have sought to avoid the issue.

Oz was asked, “Should abortion be banned in America,” but declined to answer directly, suggesting instead that “there should be no federal government involvement” and that states should be able to decide their own abortion law.

“I want women, doctors, local political leaders, leaving the democracy that has always allowed our nation to thrive, to come up with the best ideas so states can decide for themselves,” Oz said, in remarks that were immediately derided online.

Fetterman said he would “fight to reinstate” Roe v Wade, which he said “should be the law.”

“If you think the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs to Dr. Oz, then you have a choice. But if you think the choice of abortion is yours and your doctor’s, that’s what I’m fighting for,” the Democrat said.

Fetterman, who spent 13 years as mayor of Braddock, a small borough outside of Pittsburgh, rose to national prominence in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania he vigorously pushed back against Trump’s voter fraud allegations, at one point referring to the then-president as “no different than any other random internet troll.”

He also attracted attention for his unusual appearance – for a politician. Standing 6ft 8in, Fetterman is usually seen wearing hoodies at campaign events and has tattoos on his forearms, including nine on his right arm that mark the dates people were killed.” by violence” in Braddock when he was mayor.

John Fetterman speaks to supporters in Philadelphia

John Fetterman has drawn attention for his informal style during his campaign. Photograph: Kriston Jae Bethel/AFP/Getty Images

Oz is best known for hosting the Dr. Oz Show, a daytime TV show about medical issues that he said on Tuesday “ruffled a lot of feathers.”

The show also promoted fad treatments and ineffective products and Oz was repeatedly dubbed a “snake oil salesman”. In 2014, he was asked to appear before a Senate committee, where he was reprimanded by senators for his promotion of “miracle” diet pills that the medical community agreed didn’t work.

The Fetterman campaign had tried to temper expectations ahead of the debate and issued a memo on Monday saying the debate “is not John’s format,” noting that some were disappointed with Fetterman’s performance in the debates during the Democratic primary this spring.

“John is five months out from his stroke and Oz has literally spent the last two decades in a television studio; if there’s an on-court advantage, it’s definitely his,” Rebecca Katz, Fetterman’s communications adviser, told The New York Times.

At times, Fetterman’s speech held him back, but he refuted Republican suggestions — repeated across countless state TV ads — that he was ‘soft on crime’, pointing to successes in the fight. against gun crime in Braddock.

Oz, Fetterman said, “Never attempted to fight crime in his entire career except showing up for photo ops here in Philadelphia.”

On minimum wage, Oz said “market forces” would raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage by $7.25 — the lowest amount allowed by federal law and an amount, adjusted for inflation, that is the lowest minimum wage in decades.

Fetterman said he “absolutely” supports the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, adding, “I think it’s a shame at $7.25 an hour.”

As the debate drew to a close, both candidates were asked about their party’s potential nominees in the 2024 presidential election. Fetterman said he would back Biden if the president ran again.

In a tacit acknowledgment of Trump’s division and deep unpopularity in some parts of the country, Oz was initially less equivocal, saying only that he “would support whoever the Republican Party puts in place.”

A moderator reminded viewers that Trump had endorsed Oz — an action Trump rarely grants to those who might disappoint him — and asked Oz why he wouldn’t return that endorsement.

This prompted Oz, perhaps aware of the notoriously emotional and explosive nature of his support, to clarify his position.

“Oh, I know that,” Oz said. “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president.”

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