Fetterman’s health is in focus as he takes on Oz in a U.S. Senate debate

PHILADELPHIA, Oct 25 (Reuters) – U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman faces his biggest political test since a stroke in May on Tuesday when he debates Republican challenger Mehmet Oz in a Pennsylvania race that will help determine whether Democrats will retain their slim majority in the House.

Fetterman, the state’s 53-year-old lieutenant governor, has seen Oz, a 62-year-old prominent doctor backed by Donald Trump, largely erase his lead in polls since the summer as concerns about rising inflation helped turn voters away by President Joe Biden Democrats ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

Fetterman’s stroke left lingering speech and hearing problems that sometimes cause verbal errors, but his doctor said in a recent note that he is fit to work without restrictions. He still uses closed captioning to conduct interviews and will use one in Tuesday’s debate, which may cause a slight delay in answering some questions, Fetterman’s campaign said.

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Oz and Republicans have raised questions about whether Fetterman has been forthcoming about his health. The debate offers the Democrat’s biggest opportunity yet to prove his opponents wrong in front of a statewide audience.

“I haven’t talked to a Democrat in Pennsylvania or in Washington who isn’t concerned about the debate,” said a senior Pennsylvania Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss his concerns candidly.

A poll last week by the Philadelphia Fox affiliate showed the two tied. The race is among the most expensive in the country, with Fetterman raising $48 million through September and Oz raising $35 million, including millions of his own money.

The race to succeed retiring Republican Pat Toomey is Democrats’ best hope of gaining ground in the 50-50 Senate, which they control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote.

A win in Pennsylvania could offset losses elsewhere as Democrats defend embattled incumbents in states including Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. Republican control of the House or Senate would be enough to stop Biden’s legislative agenda.

A Fetterman campaign representative told Reuters the campaign had realistic expectations from the debate.

“Even before the stroke, John wasn’t much of a debater. Meanwhile, Oz is a showman who has spent years in front of the camera, so we know what we’re up against,” the official said

In remarks last week at a Philadelphia fundraiser attended by President Joe Biden, Fetterman said he still has lingering effects, such as slurring or slurring words, but that he is recovering.

“I’ll feel a lot better in January, but Dr. Oz will still be a fraud,” Fetterman said

There are also risks for Oz, who could appear callous if he attacks Fetterman over his health. The Oz campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

“DON’T EXPECT ME TO HOLD BACK”

Oz’s supporters, however, expect him to continue to raise questions about Fetterman’s fitness for office and his candor about his health.

“He hasn’t held back and I don’t expect him to. You don’t have to because it’s the truth,” said Val Biancaniello, a Philadelphia-area Republican state committeeman.

Fetterman spent a lot of time and money attacking Oz for his opposition to abortion, claiming he would vote with Republicans for a strict federal ban on abortion. Oz supports strict restrictions on abortion, with exceptions in cases of incest, rape or the life of the mother.

Democrats have bet that reproductive rights will be a hot-button issue after the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, but the latest data from a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that inflation and the economy are far from the most pressing issues among those who say yes likely to vote.

Oz has gone on the offensive in recent weeks, flooding the airwaves with ads portraying Fetterman as a far-left liberal who is indifferent to rising crime.

Oz argued that Fetterman’s attempt to seek leniency for criminals as head of the State Board of Pardons shows he will make Pennsylvania less safe. Fetterman is unapologetic, saying the American justice system is “unforgiving and vindictive” and in need of reform, especially regarding harsh sentencing guidelines.

The Oz attacks come amid a spike in homicides and crime in Philadelphia, the state’s largest city and the state’s most important electoral district.

“The Oz campaign was strategically smart,” said Chris Borick, a sociologist at Pennsylvania Muhlenberg College. “They’re buying big ads on the crime issue in the Philadelphia media market and putting them on shows aimed at older audiences.”

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Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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