If opposition Republicans capture both the U.S. House and Senate in the November 8 midterm election, the legislative agenda of President Joe Biden, a Democrat, will be derailed. One of the most closely watched and tightest races is for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania. It features Republican Party nominee Mehmet Oz against Democratic Party nominee John Fetterman, who is the state’s lieutenant governor.
Fetterman’s campaign has issued social media memes mocking Oz’s apparent lack of knowledge about Pennsylvania, portraying him as a wealthy, out-of-touch carpetbagger from over the border, in New Jersey.
Oz, a physician and political novice, has sought to cast doubts among Pennsylvania’s voters about Fetterman’s fitness to serve as a senator since he suffered an ischemic stroke in May, shortly after capturing the Democratic Party nomination. The condition has left him with auditory processing difficulties.
During Tuesday’s televised debate with Oz, Fetterman was allowed to use a closed captioning device.
“I might miss some words during this debate, mush some words together. But it [the stroke] knocked me down. But I’m going to keep coming back up,” Fetterman said near the start of the hourlong encounter, which took place in Harrisburg, the state capital, without a studio audience.
Fetterman did have difficulty during the debate, as he predicted. When the moderators quizzed him about his changing positions on fracking, a controversial process to extract gas and oil, the candidate was visibly flummoxed.
“I do support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t, I support fracking. And I stand and I do support fracking,” he responded.
Oz faces scrutiny for some of the products he endorsed during his 15 years on his nationally televised talk program, with critics saying the supplements had dubious health benefits, at best, and might have been dangerous.
During the debate, Oz brushed off such concerns and focused on his treatment of patients.
“I can make the difficult decisions as you do in the operating room as a surgeon. I’ll make them cutting our budget as well, to make sure we don’t have to raise taxes on a population already desperately in pain from the high inflation rate,” he said.
Oz has sought to portray Fetterman as soft on crime during his time as mayor of a small town and while he held the state’s second-highest elected office.
“These radical positions extend beyond crime, to one thing to legalize all drugs, to open the border, to raising our taxes,” said Oz during the debate.
Fetterman, on the campaign trail, drew a distinct line between himself and Oz on the highly-charged issue of abortion.
“If you believe that the choice for abortion belongs between you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,” he said during the debate, defending the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision struck down by the high court this year.
Oz said the federal government should not be involved in abortion legislation.
“I want women, doctors, local political leaders letting the democracy that always allowed our nation to thrive, to put the best ideas forward so state can decide for themselves,” he said on the debate stage.
The economy is also expected to be a significant matter in the decision of many midterm voters across the United States and especially in some parts of Pennsylvania.
“On the outskirts of Pittsburgh, people are struggling, just to keep up with rent just to keep up with paying their bills and getting groceries and so that’s a major issue,” according to associate professor Gerald Dickinson of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Dickinson cautioned that whatever the stances of Fetterman and Oz, their positions might not be the ultimate factor influencing voters’ decisions when they cast their ballots.
“It’s a very, very close race and, as a result of that, what I do think is going to happen is that the personalities of these candidates are going to end up swaying this election,” Dickinson said.
Fetterman, with tattooed arms and usually clad in short pants, promotes his Everyman persona even though he towers over most voters at a height of 2.03 meters.
Oz, the heart surgeon, is more polished, and a relaxed figure in front of the camera.
“It shows in the way that he’s been able to campaign, the way that he’s been able to communicate his issues to his audience,” said Dickinson, a former Democratic Party primary candidate for Congress.
Both candidates enjoy high-profile backers. Biden, a Pennsylvania native, has been campaigning for Fetterman, while Oz is supported by former President Donald Trump, who encouraged Oz to enter politics.
If elected, Oz, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Turkey, would become the first Muslim in the Senate.
Some of those viewing the hourlong debate at a nonpartisan watch party in Pittsburgh — a city evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — told VOA they did not see the encounter swaying the minds of many voters, even though Oz came across as more fluent than Fetterman.
“I think they both stuck to, primarily, what their party is saying. I think Fetterman had a disadvantage. He had to read before he responded and that comes across as if he’s unsure or thinking,” said Richard Covington.
“It was very much a performance, certainly by Dr. Oz — that’s what he’s used to doing. I think for John Fetterman it felt like a struggle. It was just very difficult. The whole thing was kind of painful to watch, frankly,” said Alma Wisniewski.
“When he’s pressured his speech becomes a little more challenging,” said Albert Moore, who expressed support for Fetterman, describing the Democrat as someone who was “not a real articulate guy” even before the stroke, but managed to get things done as a mayor and lieutenant governor.
Fetterman “deserves credit not ridicule” for taking the debate stage while recovering from the stroke, the Philadelphia Inquirer opined Wednesday, after the event.
“If elected to the U.S. Senate, Fetterman could become a role model in helping the nation better understand that a person’s struggles can also be a source of strength,” the newspaper said.
Fetterman appeared at a Pittsburgh rally on Wednesday evening with musician Dave Matthews.
“I may not get every word the right way,” Fetterman told the crowd. “I have a lot of good days. And every now and then I’ll have a bad day. But every day I will always fight just for you.”
More than 686,000 early ballots had been submitted by Wednesday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, so any assessment by those voters of the candidates’ debate performance will not make a difference.
In addition, neither candidate can take traditional party support for granted. Pennsylvania’s historical working-class areas, once reliably Democratic, have trended Republican, while many previously solid Republican suburbs now have Democratic Party majorities.
In a CNN poll, conducted by SSRS, a survey and market research firm, in mid-October and released the day prior to the debate, 51% of likely voters said they supported Fetterman while 45% of respondents backed Oz. Other recent surveys have shown the race closer, within the polls’ margins of error.