Who won the debate in the Pennsylvania Senate? The best takeaways from John Fetterman and Dr. Oz’s midterm showdown

The two leading contenders for the Pennsylvania Senate open seat entered the debate stage in Harrisburg with something to prove.

Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman had to prove he could do the job after suffering a stroke in May.

Retired surgeon and TV host Mehmet Oz, a political neophyte endorsed by former President Donald Trump, needed to show he could actually understand the problems in Washington and tackle political issues head-on.

Here are our main conclusions from the debate:

Fetterman tries to show he can do the job

Before the debate began, the Fetterman campaign sent out a memo lowering expectations, noting how he did not perform well in the primary debates. As a result, Mr. Fetterman’s primary goal was to exceed expectations.

At the start of the debate, Mr Fetterman brought up the fact that he had had a stroke in May and was struggling with auditory processing. As a result, he demanded the use of closed captioning.

“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He never let me forget that. And I may have missed a few words during this debate, which are two words together, but it knocked me down and then I’m going to keep coming back,” he said at the start of the debate.

Sometimes Mr. Fetterman had delayed responses when reading the responses and sometimes missed a few words. Likewise, the moderators asked him if he was fit for the job and why he wasn’t fully transparent with his medical records.

“I believe if my doctor thinks I’m fit to serve, and that’s what I think is appropriate,” he said. “And I believe that, again, my doctors, the real doctors, that I believe they all believe that I’m ready to be served.”

Oz dodges the questions

Throughout the debate, Dr. Oz frequently attempted to distract whenever he was asked about a number of issues. Asked about the minimum wage, he swerved and did not directly answer whether he would support federal legislation.

“I think market forces have already pushed the minimum wage up,” he said.

Similarly, when asked if he would support Senator Lindsey Graham’s 15-week abortion ban, he never fully answered the question.

“I’ll give you a broader answer. I will not support state federal rules that block states’ ability to do what they wish to do,” he said.

Likewise, he avoided telling the door if he supported a federal ban on abortion.

“I want women, doctors, local political leaders to leave the democracy that has always allowed our nation to thrive to come up with the best ideas so states can decide for themselves,” he said.

Personal insults flare up throughout the debate

Mr. Fetterman and Dr. Oz ran one of the most personal and bitter campaigns. Mr. Fetterman began his opening statement by talking about the so-called Rule of Oz: “If he’s on TV, he’s lying.”

“He did that during his career on his TV show. He did it during his campaign by lying about our record here and he’s probably lying during this debate as well,” Fetterman said.

Similarly, Dr. Oz invoked Mr. Fetterman’s past and called him a profiteer who lived off his parents’ wealth.

“But John Fetterman thinks minimum wage is his parents’ weekly allowance,” he said. “He’s not really as aware of the real challenges of business owners who have balance as he is with employees.”

Oz tries to go center – while hugging Trump

Throughout the debate, Dr. Oz tried to portray himself as a moderate, dodging questions that might make him sound too extreme for the swing state of Pennsylvania.

“I am running for the US Senate because Washington continues to mislead itself with extreme positions,” he said. “I want to bring civility, balance all the things you want to see because you told me during the election campaign.”

He lambasted Mr. Fetterman for being an extremist on crime, fracking and health care, citing his rival’s former support for Senator Bernie Sanders.

“John Fetterman, however, can’t go to Washington and work with the other side because he just didn’t get along with his own side,” he said. “He blamed Joe Biden for not spending enough money and not getting close enough to Bernie Sanders.”

However, when asked about his support for former President Donald Trump, who backed him, he said he would back a 2024 race by the man who backed him.

“I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president in 2024,” he said. “But it’s more than a candidate. It’s a much bigger story about how we’re going to build a bigger tent to make more Americans feel safe.

Throughout the Trump presidency, Republicans lost support in suburban Philadelphia and Pittsburgh precisely because suburban voters, especially suburban women, found Mr. Trump repugnant. While Dr. Oz had little choice but to back the person who backed him and saved his candidacy, that could make some voters skeptical of his support.

Will public opinion on Fetterman change after the debate?

Ahead of the debate, a CBS/YouGov poll showed 55% of registered voters in Pennsylvania said Mr. Fetterman was healthy enough to serve. But that number was down four points from September. Mr. Fetterman was always going to be caught in a predicament once he suffered his stroke: if he avoided a debate, he was seen as avoiding a fundamental job responsibility, but if he took the stage, he would likely be judged on its overall performance and perceived suitability for the office.

Mr Fetterman tried to cast the stunt as a way to show he had empathy for other voters, saying ‘it knocked me down and then I’m going to keep going back up. And this campaign is about me fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania who has ever been knocked down, who needs to get up.

The question now is how voters will receive it. About one in four Americans has a disability and might sympathize with them or have reservations about them while they’re still recovering.

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