HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman wouldn’t commit to releasing his full medical records during a highly anticipated debate against Republican Mehmet Oz on Tuesday, speaking haltingly throughout the hourlong event more than five months after experiencing a stroke.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania's 53-year-old lieutenant governor, has acknowledged that he “almost died" after suffering a stroke in May. On Tuesday night, he addressed what he called the “elephant in the room."
“I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” Fetterman said of his Republican opponent. “And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down and I’m going to keep coming back up.”
He also quickly tried to go on offense by attacking Oz's “gigantic mansions” and his integrity.
“It’s the Oz rule: he’s on TV and he’s lying," Fetterman said.
Oz, a celebrity heart surgeon, ignored his opponent's health throughout the debate, though he has hammered Fetterman on the issue repeatedly during the campaign. On Tuesday night, Oz attacked Fetterman's policies on crime, saying he is “trying to get as many murderers out of jail as possible.”
"These radical positions extend beyond crime," Oz charged. He later added, “His extreme positions have made him untenable.”
Fetterman insisted he is prepared for the demands of the Senate as he continues to recover from the stroke. Independent experts consulted by The Associated Press said he appears to be recovering remarkably well. He used closed-captioning during the debate to help him process the words he hears.
Stroke rehabilitation specialist Dr. Sonia Sheth, who watched the debate, called Fetterman an inspiration to stroke survivors.
“In my opinion, he did very well,” said Sheth of Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Chicago. “He had his stroke less than one year ago and will continue to recover over the next year. He had some errors in his responses, but overall he was able to formulate fluent, thoughtful answers.”
Problems with auditory processing do not mean someone also has cognitive problems, the experts agreed. The brain’s language network is different from regions involved in decision making and critical thinking.
While debates have rarely swayed elections in the modern era, the intense national interest in the primetime affair — particularly in Fetterman’s performance — suggested this debate could prove decisive in an election central to the Democrats’ urgent fight to retain their Senate majority.
For Democrats, there is no better pickup opportunity in the U.S. than the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in a state Biden narrowly carried in 2020.
For much of the year, it looked as if Fetterman was the clear favorite, especially as Republicans waged a nasty nomination battle that left the GOP divided and bitter. But as Election Day nears, the race has tightened. And now, just two weeks before the final votes are cast, even the White House is privately concerned that Fetterman’s candidacy is at risk.
Voting is already well underway across the state. As of Tuesday, 639,000 votes had already been cast.
Fetterman’s speech challenges were apparent throughout the night. He often struggled to complete sentences.
When pressed to explain his shifting position on fracking, his answer was particularly awkward.
“I do support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t. I support fracking, and I stand and I do support fracking,” he said.
At another point, the moderator seemed to cut off Fetterman as he struggled to finish an answer defending Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness programs. He also stumbled before finishing a key attack line: “We need to make sure that Dr. Oz and Republicans believe in cutting Medicare and Social Security ...”