Democrats in Pennsylvania have continued to defend John Fetterman after his debate performance.
Republicans expressed sympathy for Fetterman but questioned his ability to serve after a stroke
"Is this somebody who's gonna be cognitive enough to really represent the needs of Pennsylvanians?" one GOP official said.
ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania – As Lori McFarland watched Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman make his case to voters in Pennsylvania's Senate debate on Tuesday evening, one thing became clear to her: time was not on his side.
A retired special education public school teacher, McFarland thought that the closed captioning displayed on a large monitor above the debate moderators helped Fetterman with auditory-processing problems that he's faced since he suffered a serious stroke five months ago.
"But he needed way more time to be able to process effectively," McFarland, the chair of Lehigh County's Democratic Committee, told Insider on Wednesday. "He really had a hard time navigating 15 seconds, 30 seconds, and 60 seconds," and ultimately, that's "what really set him off in him underperforming."
During the one-hour showdown against his Republican rival Mehmet Oz, Fetterman at times struggled to get his message across clearly, speaking haltingly and stumbling on his words. The performance starkly contrasted with that of Oz's, a celebrity doctor who made his name on daytime TV and appeared more comfortable on stage.
Still, McFarland said she remains steadfast in her support for Fetterman, unfazed by concerns circulating about his health and his ability to represent the Keystone State.
"People who are supporting John Fetterman – certainly this didn't change anything," McFarland said. "They have a real understanding and empathy for John's experience and what he's going through."
"And I must tell you," she added, "Oz looked like such a smirky schmuck. He looked arrogant, he looked bold, he looked like a bully."
In nearly a dozen interviews with voters and elected officials in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Democrats shared the same sentiment after watching the debate, unwavering in their commitment to Fetterman. Yet Republicans, while expressing sympathy toward the Democratic candidate's health, questioned his readiness for public duty, and urged fellow Pennsylvanians to do the same.
"God bless the man. Certainly not gonna slam a man who's had a health challenge. We all go through different health challenges at different times in our lives," said Glenn Geissinger, chair of Northampton County's Republican Committee, "But the question that I think that the voters have to ask themselves is: is this somebody who's gonna be cognitive enough to really represent the needs of Pennsylvanians?"
Fetterman has for months fended off criticism about his health, insisting that he's fit for the job. Following a three-month hiatus, he returned to the campaign trail in August, holding in-person events and participating in one-on-one interviews.
"He's been doing his due diligence to try to show the commonwealth and our residents that he is out there, he is doing his best, and that he's gonna take some time to heal," Fadia Halma, a Democratic volunteer in the Lehigh Valley area, told Insider, adding that Fetterman displayed "genuine courage" by participating in the debate.
At the same time, the Oz campaign has accused Fetterman of being opaque about his health. Last week, Fetterman released a new note from his doctor that stated in his latest checkup, he "spoke intelligently without cognitive deficits," is "recovering well," and demonstrated that he "can work full duty in public office."
Fetterman cited that letter when asked by the debate moderator about releasing a detailed medical report "in the interest of transparency."
"To me, transparency is about showing up. I'm here today to have a debate. I have speeches in front of 3,000 people in Montgomery County, all across Pennsylvania – big crowds," Fetterman said, "I believe if my doctor believes that I'm fit to serve, then that's what I believe is appropriate."
James Carter, a 71-year-old Democratic voter, told Insider that Fetterman is simply not getting enough credit.
"You don't hear anybody talking about how well he's doing, or the amazement of what he's doing when he had a serious stroke," said Carter, a legislative district leader of Dauphin County's Democratic Committee. "You hear people talk about limitations."
Fetterman acknowledged those limitations in his opening remarks of the debate, calling his health "the elephant in the room" and admitting that he might miss or mush words over the hour, all while touting his resiliency.
"It knocked me down, but I'm gonna keep coming back up," Fetterman said.
Though for many Republicans, Fetterman's performance was painful to watch. "I kind of felt bad," Stacy Garrity, Pennsylvania's state treasurer, told Insider.
"I felt a little sorry for Fetterman," Republican state Sen. Mike Regan, told Insider, "But I mean, look, this is a tough business, right? You gotta be sharp, you gotta be on your toes."
The election to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is one of the most important in the country as the outcome could determine which party controls the Senate, and essentially, President Joe Biden's agenda. Democrats are vying to expand their majority whereas Republicans are aiming to flip the upper chamber red.
In recent days, polls have shown a tightening race between the two rivals, with Oz narrowing Fetterman's lead. It's unclear whether Fetterman's debate performance could jeopardize his standing in the race.
Some Republicans hope Tuesday's debate, the first and only one before Election Day, would push Oz ahead in the polls.
"I don't even think that John Fetterman should be running," Beth Gdowik, a 59-year-old voter from the Lehigh Valley area, told Insider.
"I understand that a stroke can impact somebody's ability to communicate," Gdowik added, but, "He couldn't even put together a full sentence. I'm not convinced that cognitively he is able to do the job."
But to McFarland, the debate won't move the needle against Fetterman, because "cognitively, he's not impaired" and because hundreds of thousands of Democrats in Pennsylvania have already cast their ballots for him. Early voting among Democrats makes up around 73% of the current vote in the state, surpassing the rate among Republicans, at 23%, according to an analysis by Target Smart, a Democratic-leaning political data firm.
"We don't need him to be a super orator," McFarland said of Fetterman. "We don't need perfect candidates. We need people who are supportive, empathetic, understand Pennsylvanians, and I think he does. And I don't think that Oz does."
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