Fetterman vows to ‘keep coming back’ in Oz debate

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman is not committing to releasing his full medical records during a highly anticipated debate against Republican Mehmet Oz on Tuesday, speaking in the hour-long event more than five months after suffering a stroke.

Fetterman, the 53-year-old lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, admitted 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 never let me forget that,” Fetterman said of his Republican opponent. “And I might have missed some words during this debate, mixed two words together, but it knocked me off my feet and I’ll keep coming back.”

He also quickly tried to attack Oz’s “giant mansions” and his honesty.

“It’s Oz’s rule: He’s on TV and he lies,” Fetterman said.

Oz, the famed heart surgeon, ignored his opponent’s health throughout the debate, though he repeatedly gave Fetterman a run for his money on the issue during the campaign. On Tuesday night, Oz attacked Fetterman’s crime policies, saying he was “trying to get as many murderers out of prison as possible.”

“These radical positions go beyond criminality,” Oz said. He later added: “His extreme positions made him fragile.”

Fetterman insisted he is willing to accept the Senate’s demands while he continues to recover from the stroke. Independent experts consulted by The Associated Press said he appeared to be making an excellent recovery. He used subtitles during the debate to help him process the words he was hearing.

Stroke rehabilitation specialist Dr Sonia Sheth, who watched the debate, called Fetterman an inspiration to stroke survivors.

“I think he’s done it very well,” said Sheth, of Northwestern Medicine’s Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Chicago. “He had a stroke less than a 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 responses.”

Experts agreed that having problems with auditory processing does not mean that someone also has cognitive problems. The brain’s language network is distinct from regions involved in decision-making and critical thinking.

While debates rarely sway elections in the modern era, the intense national interest in the prime-time event — particularly Fetterman’s speech — suggests the debate could be pivotal in an election that will be the centerpiece of a snap race. Democrats to retain the majority in the Senate.

There is no better opportunity for Democrats in the US than the race to replace Republican Senator Pat Toomey in a state that Biden narrowly won in 2020.

For most of the year, Fetterman appeared to be the clear favorite, especially as Republicans waged a nasty nomination battle that left the GOP divided and bitter. But as Election Day approached, the race intensified. And now, just two weeks before the final vote, even the White House is privately concerned that Fetterman’s candidacy is in jeopardy.

Voting is already underway across the state. As of Tuesday, 639,000 votes were cast.

“The debate looks very big, bigger than usual for a Senate debate,” said Republican activist Charles Gerow, a two-decade veteran of Sunday television political talk shows.

Candidates for the Senate of the state of Pennsylvania met each other in a television studio in Harrisburg. The public was not allowed in, and Nexstar Media, which organized the debate, refused to allow an AP photographer into the event.

The meeting was the first and only major debate this year in Pennsylvania, as Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano failed to reach an agreement on the terms of the gubernatorial debate.

Fetterman is a star of progressive politics across the country, gaining a loyal following thanks to, among other things, his outspoken working-class appeal, towering stature, tattoos and unapologetic progressive politics. On Tuesday, the 6’9″ Democrat traded in his signature hoodie and shorts for a dark suit and tie.

But Fetterman’s health has become a major issue in the final weeks of the election, even as candidates elsewhere battle it out on issues like abortion, crime and inflation.

Oz pushed for more than half a dozen debates, suggesting that Fetterman’s reluctance to agree to more than one was because the stroke had left him exhausted. Fetterman insisted that one debate is typical – although two is more common – and that Oz’s focus on the debate was a cynical ploy to lie about his health.

Fetterman’s speech problems were evident throughout the night. He often had difficulty finishing sentences.

When pressed to explain his shifting position on fracking, his response was particularly awkward.

“I support fracking and I support fracking,” he said.

Democrats pointed out that the televised debate likely would have favored Oz even without the question about the stroke.

Oz is a longtime TV host who hosted “The Dr. Oz Show” weekdays for 13 seasons after becoming a regular guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. Fetterman, on the other hand, is a less experienced orator, who is introverted by nature.

“This was always going to be an away game for John Fetterman,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic political consultant in Philadelphia.

Fetterman requested and received a closed captioning system for the debates, which displayed everything said in writing on a large screen behind the moderators.

Fetterman said in a memo ahead of the debate that closed captioning would be “typed by people in real time, live,” warning that it could lead to delays, transcription errors and miscommunication. “This is uncontrollable and unavoidable,” the memo said.

Abortion was a major dividing line during the debate.

Oz insists he supports three exemptions — for rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother. When pressed Tuesday night, he suggested he opposes South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill to impose a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks because it would allow the federal government to dictate laws to states.

“I’m not going to support federal regulations that block the ability of states to do what they want,” Oz said.

Fetterman said he would vote for a bill by Democrats in Congress that would allow abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. He has also separately stated that he does not support the introduction of restrictions on abortion and prefers to leave the decision to women.

“I want to look every woman in Pennsylvania in the face: If you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs to Dr. Oz, that is your choice. But if you believe that the choice to have an abortion is yours and your doctor’s, that’s what I’m fighting for,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman also raised questions about Oz’s whereabouts, which has been a recurring theme throughout the campaign.

For much of the year, Fetterman exploited Oz’s tenuous ties to the state in witty posts on social media and media campaigns.

Oz was born in Ohio, raised in Delaware and has lived in New Jersey for decades. In 2020, People magazine published an article about the New Jersey mansion that Oz and his wife, Lisa, “built from scratch 20 years ago.”

Later that year, Oz officially adopted an address in Pennsylvania. And the next year, in 2021, he started his campaign for the Senate.

Meanwhile, questions about Fetterman’s physical and mental strength remain.

Fetterman declined to say Tuesday night whether he would release his medical records.

“To me, transparency is about showing off,” he said.

Fetterman has consistently rejected calls to release medical records or allow reporters to question his doctors. Last week, he released a note from his primary care physician, who wrote that Fetterman is recovering well, showing no cognitive effects and “able to function fully in public office.”

Fetterman’s company insists that now that he’s been more careful with his diet and daily exercise regimen, walking several miles a day, he’s healthier than ever. He regularly visits a speech therapist and takes medication.

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Peoples reported from New York. AP medical writer Carla K. Johnson contributed from Washington state.

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Follow AP election coverage at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections

Departure https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and drivers of the 2022 midterm elections.

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