HARRISBURG, Pa. — John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz took part in Pennsylvania’s first and only Senate debate on Tuesday as polls show the race narrowing ahead of Election Day.
The hour-long forum — presented by Nexstar, which also owns The Hill — shone a spotlight on Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke as the Democrat at times struggled to answer questions coherently. Oz, a former TV personality, appeared to be in his element, on the other hand.
But policy issues like the economy, abortion and fracking also took center stage throughout the night.
Here are five takeaways from the Pennsylvania Senate debate.
Fetterman’s challenges with stroke on full display
It was the “elephant in the room,” as Fetterman himself put it in his opening remarks addressing his health issues.
Scrutiny has been growing over the Democrat’s health since he suffered a stroke in May. On Tuesday night, the challenges he sometimes faces in communicating as a result of his recovery were on full display.
Fetterman was aided by a closed captioning system throughout the debate to help him understand the moderators’ questions, but he still struggled at times to form clear sentences.
Republican critics were quick to pounce on Fetterman’s performance, pointing out that he opened the debate with “Hi, goodnight everybody.”
Fetterman particularly struggled to answer a question about whether he supported fracking. Pressed on how he squared his past comments in 2018 in which he voiced opposition to the practice with his current support for it, Fetterman offered a halting response.
“I..I do support fracking…and…I don’t, I don’t…I support fracking and I stand and I do support fracking,” he said, in a moment that went viral.
Fetterman’s campaign released a statement following the forum saying it was “thrilled with John’s performance,” especially given the circumstances of him recovering from a stroke.
“John may not have pronounced every word correctly, but it was Oz who had the biggest gaffes of the night,” Calvello said. “Oz refused to answer a single yes or no question directly including on the GOP’s national abortion ban or the bipartisan gun safety law.”
Still, Fetterman’s performance on Tuesday night likely won’t quell concerns over his ability to serve.
Oz has a good night
Oz clearly had the upper hand going into the debate, given his experience working as an on-air television personality. While there have certainly been bumps in the road for Oz and his campaign, the Republican appeared polished and disciplined Tuesday night, as he echoed the national GOP message of combating inflation, crime and the flow of migrants over the southern border.
One of the biggest questions Oz faced going into the debate was how he would address Fetterman’s health.
The situation for Oz is particularly unique, not only because he’s Fetterman’s opponent but also because he has a medical background. Oz’s campaign came under fire earlier this year when an aide mocked Fetterman after his stroke.
For the most part, Oz avoided launching any pointed attacks on Fetterman regarding his stroke, focusing instead on clear, forceful answers on policy issues.
To be sure, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Oz. His response to a question on abortion immediately drew attention online, in which he appeared to say that “women, doctors, local political leaders” should be involved in decisions on the procedure. Fetterman’s campaign was quick to seize on the remarks, announcing they were planning to release an ad containing the clip following the debate.
Overall, though, Oz’s allies likely felt reassured coming away from his performance.
Oz makes his pitch to suburbia
Fetterman and Democrats have relentlessly worked to portray Oz as out of touch and too conservative for the Keystone State, but Oz took the opportunity on Tuesday to paint himself as a moderate in a pitch likely aimed at swing voters in crucial areas like the Philadelphia suburbs.
Oz opened the debate by saying he wanted to bring “civility and balance” to the Senate if elected while labeling Fetterman’s positions on policies as “extreme,” “radical” and “out of touch.”
The Republican appeared to take a somewhat more moderate stance on abortion, saying he would not support a federal abortion ban when asked about Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed national abortion ban. However, critics were quick to point out that he did not answer the question as to whether he would support Graham’s specific proposal with a yes or no answer.
The Republican also hammered Fetterman on issues like crime and immigration, positioning himself as the more centrist candidate.
Debate has its testy moments
Tensions flared between Fetterman and Oz on more than one occasion, with both candidates echoing the ugly attacks seen on the campaign trail.
Fetterman frequently attacked Oz for being out of touch, referencing Oz’s “ten gigantic mansions.” He also repeatedly said it’s “Oz’s rule” to lie.
The Democrat also notably interrupted Oz during his closing statement, accusing him of wanting to cut Social Security.
Oz also went on the offensive through the forum, demanding that Fetterman apologize for detaining an unarmed Black man with a gun in 2013 and accusing him of avoiding paying his taxes.
Throughout the night, the tenor of the debate remained charged even if voices were never raised.
Could it be a game-changer?
Even compared to other Senate debates, the Pennsylvania event was closely watched by political observers.
Fetterman’s performance in particular is likely to raise concerns among Democrats in the last two weeks of the midterm season.
Oz’s supporters are already saying that the debate showcased how unprepared the Democrat is to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Fetterman’s supporters, on the other hand, say that the real test is the candidates’ on-the-ground campaign game.
Ultimately, it’s unclear how much the debate will matter in the long run. But should Oz pull up from behind and win in November, it’s likely many will point to the debate as a key turning point in the race.