Fetterman and Oz face off in high-stakes debate in Pennsylvania Senate race


▶ Watch Video: Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz face off in debate

Pennsylvania’s two Senate candidates, Democratic Lt. Governor John Fetterman and his Republican opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz, appeared Tuesday night in their first and only debate in the state’s highly-watched and contentious Senate race. It comes as Fetterman continues to recover from a stroke and struggled at times Tuesday night with speech due to ongoing auditory processing challenges and used a closed-captioning device to read the questions.

In his opening statement, Fetterman, who stumbled speaking from the podium several times although it was clear that he understood the questions, acknowledged the “elephant in the room,” saying, “I had a stroke.” Addressing his opponent, Fetterman said “he is never going to let me forget that.”

“It knocked me down but I’m going to keep coming back up,” Fetterman said. He said the campaign was about fighting for “everyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that needs to get back up.”

The high-stakes race is key for both parties in determining which party controls the Senate. A CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released Tuesday morning — ahead of the debate — showed Fetterman leading Oz 51% to 49%, after Fetterman led by five points last month.

During one notable exchange on fracking, Fetterman struggled to defend his changing position from 2018, when he said in an interview that he opposed it. When both candidates were asked about conflicting statements they made in the past about fracking, both said they do support fracking and called for energy independence. But when asked to explain if he changed his position, Fetterman could not, simply stating, “I do support fracking and I don’t — I don’t — I support fracking and I stand — I do support fracking.”


Fetterman and Oz to debate in Pennsylvania Senate race



After the debate, Fetterman’s campaign alleged they wanted to give reporters a chance to see the closed-captioning device but Oz’s campaign would not allow it. Fetterman’s communications director Joe Calvello praised Fetterman’s performance, saying he “spoke better” and “gave me a better performance than he gave in the primary.” Oz’s spokesman Barney Keller said he left it to Pennsylvanians to make their own decisions on Fetterman’s health.

In the hour-long face-off, the candidates also clashed on spending, abortion, health care, public safety, education and more. Throughout the debate both candidates, often speaking over each other, accused the other of lying to the people of Pennsylvania.

Oz has made crime a central line of attack in his campaign in the final months of the election season, forcing Fetterman on the defensive. He opened the debate by accusing Fetterman of trying to get murderers out of jail and wanting to legal all drugs.

“I believe that I run on my record on crime,” said Fetterman, referencing his time as the mayor of Braddock, saying he worked with the police and community to stop gun violence. He accused Oz of never attempting to address crime in his career except in photo-ops.

The candidates were also pressed to clarify their position on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

“There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions,” said Oz, who has previously not supported abortion rights. He said he’s been in the room as some difficult conversations have been happening.

“I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders leading the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves,” Oz continued.

When pressed by the debate moderators over whether he would vote for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed 15-week federal abortion ban, Oz said he was “not going to support federal, federal rules that block the abilities of states to do what they wish to do.” He said the abortion decision should be “left up to states.”

Fetterman said his campaign would “fight for Roe v Wade.”

As the economy remains the top issue for voters heading into the midterms, Fetterman and Oz both addressed soaring prices. Fetterman said there has to be pushback on corporate greed, price gouging and called for more to be made in America. Oz called for taking care of waste and fraud in the government.

Fetterman said he supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Oz said that he wants the minimum wage to go up as high as it can, but did not put a number on it. When asked to clarify, he acknowledged it would be through market forces, not federal law.

Oz, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was asked whether he would support Trump as the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. Oz first deflected, saying he would support whoever is the party nominee, but then said he would support Trump if he decides to run. When pressed about the ongoing investigations into the former president, Oz said he has not been following them closely but said he had “tremendous confidence in the American legal system.”

When asked about President Biden and 2024, Fetterman said it would be Mr. Biden’s decision on whether he runs again, but Fetterman said if Mr. Biden runs, he would support him. Fetterman said the president could do more to fight inflation but praised him as a good family man.

Polls have been tightening over the past few months. With Fetterman’s health front and center since he suffered the stroke in May, his campaign had tried to set expectations low for the debate, noting the captions would be typed out by human beings in real time on live TV.

“Some amount of human error in the transcription is inevitable, which may cause temporary miscommunications at times,” campaign adviser Rebecca Katz and campaign manager Brendan McPhillips wrote in a memo obtained by CBS News before the debate. They said they were “prepared for Oz’s allies and right-wing media to circulate malicious viral videos after the debate.”

Only 46% of registered voters in CBS News’ poll said ahead of the debate that it was important for candidates to talk about Fetterman’s health. Fifty-five percent said Fetterman was healthy enough to serve.

Voting in the midterm is well underway in Pennsylvania. More than 635,000 voters have already cast ballots by mail. Of those, 73% have been cast by Democrats, a figure that reflects their tendency to vote early, compared to Republicans, who generally vote in larger numbers on Election Day.

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