Fetterman’s Health Is Latest GOP Talking Point in Pennsylvania

(Bloomberg) -- John Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke is increasingly focusing attention on the Pennsylvania Democrat’s health, just over a week before his debate with surging Republican US Senate candidate Mehmet Oz.

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The issue is further raising the stakes in the race after Fetterman’s almost double-digit edge has been halved since August. He built that lead despite being off the campaign trail after his stroke in May with a social media campaign trolling Oz, a celebrity physician who was struggling to recover from a bitter primary campaign.

The two men are now in a tight contest in the final stretch leading to the Nov. 8 election.

Fetterman and the Democratic Senate Majority PAC have bought or reserved $93 million in ads in the general election cycle, compared to $74 million for Oz and the Republican Senate Leadership Fund, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm.

Republicans have deployed a stream of attacks around rising crime to cut into Fetterman’s lead. But an NBC News interview last week in which he relied on a closed captioning device to understand the interviewer and multiple campaign speeches when he transposed or fumbled words have invited questions about his fitness to serve in the Senate.

Democrats argue that Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, is recovering and that voters are more focused on policy. Yet even they concede that an uneven debate performance could become an issue.

“It could become one if he doesn’t do well in the debate,” said Tom O’Brien, the Democratic Party chairman in Lancaster County, where Fetterman was treated after suffering his stroke.

Fetterman’s wide lead during the summer stoked hope within President Joe Biden’s party that Democrats have a chance to flip the seat of retiring Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, and might be able to hold or expand their thin majority in the upper chamber. Pennsylvania is the linchpin of the effort as Democrats face headwinds of high inflation and an unpopular president.

Fetterman, 53, agreed to the single debate scheduled for Oct. 25 in Harrisburg with Oz after being allowed accommodations for auditory processing issues linked to his stroke.

His NBC sit-down interview caused a social media frenzy last week as the broadcast showed the closed-captioning as it happened. Fetterman’s speech patterns have been less an issue on the trail, where he acknowledges he “might miss a word” or sometimes “mush two words together” but delivers the same zingers he’s used against Oz for months.

Yet Republicans on social media have pounced on instances where he struggled to complete thoughts in stump speeches.

“Recovering from a stroke in public isn’t easy,” Fetterman said. “But in January, I’m going to be much better -- and Dr. Oz will still be a fraud.”

The NBC reporter also noted that Fetterman had difficulty making small talk without the real-time transcriptions, a point other recent interviewers disputed.

Disability rights advocates said the closed captioning that he used was not unlike other accommodations made for people with physical disabilities.

The Fetterman campaign says he’s not ducking a discussion about his health issues, and in fact the issue plays to his strengths of authenticity and empathy.

“It’s a conscious choice by him to talk about this in every stump speech, to be open about it with the audience about his challenges but then also relate it to the lives of everyday Pennsylvanians and the challenges they face,” said Joe Calvello, a Fetterman spokesman. “And we have a new ad up where he talks about it straight to camera statewide.”

In the ad, Fetterman talks about how grateful he was to see his wife and children after the stroke and how “we’ve got to make it easier for people to spend time with those they love” by focusing on issues such as access to health care.

‘Looking for an Excuse’

Almost all of the pressure in the debate is likely to be on Fetterman because of the heightened attention on how he’ll perform, said Josh Novotney, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant who has worked for Toomey.

In Fetterman’s favor, he faces lowered expectations because of his health and his reputation of not being a great debater, said Berwood Yost, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. Oz also needs to be careful to avoid appearing unsympathetic to someone suffering from a common health condition, Yost said.

Oz, 62, has walked a fine line on his opponent’s health, mostly shying away from personally questioning Fetterman’s health even as campaign aides have attacked. “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke,” one Oz adviser said in August.

In an interview with NBC broadcast last week, Oz, a former heart surgeon at New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center, said he would never talk to his patients like that and that he sympathizes with Fetterman.

“I have tremendous compassion for what John Fetterman has gone through,” Oz said. “I mean, not only do I as a doctor, appreciate the challenges, but I know his specific ailment because it’s a specialty area of mine.”

Asked how Oz plans to address Fetterman’s health in the debate, spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in a statement that Oz would be “addressing all of Fetterman’s lies during the debate, like his lies about his health.”

Surveys show that most Pennsylvanians see Fetterman’s health as a non-issue. But an Emerson College poll last month found that the number of Pennsylvanians who say they’re less likely to vote for him because of the stroke increased from August by 5 percentage points, to 27%.

“If someone is looking for an excuse, that’s what they’ll use,” said Charlotte Valyo, the Democratic chairwoman in Chester County. “But I don’t think it will turn people away who are supporters, and I don’t think it will turn people who are leaning toward him.”

(Updates with ad spending data in fourth paragraph)

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