The first debate between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz quickly turned into a stinging and personal attack in what has become the nation’s biggest Senate race.
Throughout the night, Fetterman’s delivery was at times halting and repetitive, with the Democrat – who suffered a stroke in May – slurring his answers and occasionally losing his train of thought. Much of the attention focused on the debate was about Fetterman’s ongoing recovery, and how his struggles with auditory processing and speech could affect the debate against someone who had achieved national prominence on syndicated television.
But the debate also underscored the deep political differences between the candidates, with the two candidates sparring over energy policy, abortion and the economy.
Oz clearly entered the debate with the intention of casting Fetterman as someone extreme to represent Pennsylvania, using the term “extremist” multiple times to describe the Democrat’s various positions. And Fetterman, in an effort to quickly refute many of the critics, used the phrase “the Oz rule” to describe his opponent’s relationship with the truth.
Here are six takeaways from Tuesday night’s debate:
Fetterman had a hard time defining his position on fracking because he once said he never supported the industry and “never” will.
Oz came prepared on the subject, hitting Fetterman when asked about it.
“He supports Biden’s desire to ban fracking on public lands, which is our land, all our land together,” Oz said. “This is an extreme attitude towards energy. If we could unleash our energy here in Pennsylvania, it would help everyone.”
When Oz brought up Fetterman’s comments about fracking, Fetterman pushed back.
“I absolutely support fracking,” Fetterman said. “I think we need energy independence and I think I’ve been in that direction my whole career.”
He added: “I’ve always supported fracking and I’ve always believed that our energy independence is key.”
But that’s not true — Fetterman has a long history of antipathy toward the practice of injecting water into shale formations to unlock deposits of oil and natural gas that were previously unavailable economically.
“I don’t support fracking at all and never have,” Fetterman told a left-leaning YouTube channel when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2018. “And I have signed the pledge of money without fossil fuels. I have never received a dime from the natural gas or oil company.’
When the moderators expressed this attitude, Fetterman appeared at a loss for words.
“I support fracking and I don’t, I don’t, I support fracking and I stand and I support fracking,” Fetterman said.
Oz has refused for weeks to give a firm answer on how he would vote on South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
And that debate was no different.
“The federal government shouldn’t be involved in how states make abortion decisions,” Oz said when asked about abortion, before turning on Fetterman and calling him “radical” and “extreme.”
But when Graham was asked directly how he would vote on the bill, Oz declined to answer, saying he was giving a larger answer that he “wouldn’t support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they want.” ”
The lack of response gave Fetterman an opening.
“I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. “You know, if you think it’s up to Dr. Oz to choose your reproductive freedom, then you have a choice. But if you believe that the choice to have an abortion is up to you and your doctor, that’s why I fight. Roe v Wade should be the law to me.
Fetterman, however, went beyond that position in the primaries.
Asked by CNN if he supported “abortion restrictions,” Fetterman said he did not. He took a similar position in an earlier debate.
Oz used the moment, once again, to call out Fetterman, saying it was “important” for Fetterman to “at least acknowledge” that he had taken a different stance on abortion.
But it was an Oz comment that Democrats, including the Fetterman campaign, seized on after the debate.
Oz said he believed the abortion debate should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders,” continuing his argument that states, not the federal government, should decide the issue.
Top Democrats see the comment as an opening to link Oz to Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a state senator who introduced a 2019 bill that would require doctors to determine whether a fetus has a heartbeat before an abortion and ban the procedure if there is a heartbeat. is detected.
Their argument: Oz believes that politicians like Mastriano — as state senators or perhaps governors — should decide the issue.
The Fetterman campaign announced after the debate that it would put money behind an ad highlighting the Oz comment.
Fetterman’s campaign went to great lengths to avoid controversy until criticism from editorial boards, the Oz campaign and others made it impossible to keep up the resistance.
After watching the debate in Harrisburg, even though Fetterman’s speech has shown signs of marked improvement every week since his May stroke, the big question is whether taking the stage with Oz was a wise decision. At many times it was difficult to watch.
Most, if not all, Democrats will almost certainly give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s an open question whether voters will.
Fetterman struggled to make a coherent case against Oz and keep up the pace of the hour-long debate. Oz, for his part, rarely talked about his rivals recovering from a May blow. Of course, he didn’t have to.
If Pennsylvania voters missed the debate, don’t worry.
There are sure to be billions of dollars in new ads – rehashing plenty of awkward moments – from the Republican super PAC that doubled down on the race earlier Tuesday.
Do debates matter? In less than two weeks, Pennsylvania voters will help answer that question. But this will certainly reverberate through the rest of the campaign.
At a time when politicians are wary of how they embrace President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, that was not on display Tuesday night.
Asked if he would support Trump in 2024, Oz – who received Trump’s endorsement in the contested Commonwealth Republican primary – said: “I’ll support whoever the Republican Party puts up.”
“I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president, but this is bigger than a candidate,” Oz said.
And for his part, Fetterman did not escape from Biden, who has made Pennsylvania – which he returned to the Democrats in 2020 – one of the few states that he has visited repeatedly in the 2022 mandates.
“If he chooses to run, I would absolutely support him, but at the end of the day, that’s only his choice,” Fetterman said. “At the end of the day, I think Joe Biden is a good family man, and I think he supports the union way of life.”
It was clear that Oz was more comfortable on the debate stage than Fetterman – something Fetterman’s aides had hoped for and had previously highlighted with a pre-debate note: “Dr. Oz has been a professional television personality for the past two decades.”
But the differences were evident from the start.
Fetterman appeared nervous on stage, drawing a stark contrast to Oz, who was at ease, often smiling and looking at ease.
Fetterman tried to deflect Oz’s constant jabs, sometimes interrupting the candidate while he was responding, mostly during closing arguments.
“You want to cut Social Security,” Fetterman said while talking about Oz meeting with seniors worried about their Social Security checks.
Oz continued to speak, as WPXI moderator Lisa Sylvester said, “Mr. Fetterman, it’s his turn to close.”
Oz avoided attacking Fetterman’s stroke recovery, a move inconsistent with his campaign, which at times used a mocking tone to attack the Democrat. But Oz pointed out that his opponent only agreed to take the debate stage once.
“This is the only argument you can come talk to me about, and I had to beg on my knees to let you in,” Oz said.
Fetterman again declined to release any further medical information beyond two letters from his top doctors. Recently, Fetterman’s doctor wrote that the Democrat “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”
Fetterman said he left it up to his “real doctors” whether to release more medical information, a subtle dig at Oz, and insisted that his presence on stage and campaign activity was proof enough that he was fit for the job.
“Transparency is about showing up. I’m here today to have a discussion. I’ve given speeches in front of 3,000 people all over Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, big crowds,” Fetterman said. “You know, I think if my doctor thinks I’m fit to serve, and that’s what I feel is fit.”
When pressed by WHTM abc27 News moderator Dennis Owens, Fetterman replied, “My doctor thinks I’m fit to serve.”
This story has been updated with more from the discussion.