The first and only debate between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz quickly devolved into a series of personal and biting attacks in what has become the highest stakes Senate race in the country.
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Throughout the night, Fetterman’s delivery was at times halting and repetitive, with the Democrat – who suffered a stroke in May – dropping words during answers and occasionally losing his train of thought. Much of the attention heading into the debate was on Fetterman’s ongoing recovery and how his struggle with auditory processing and speech could impact a debate against someone who rose to national prominence hosting a syndicated television show.
But the debate also emphasized the deep policy differences between the candidates, with the two candidates sparring over energy policy, abortion and the economy.
Oz clearly entered the debate hoping to cast Fetterman as someone too extreme to represent Pennsylvania, using the term “extreme” countless times to describe several the Democrat’s positions. And Fetterman, in an effort to quickly negate many of criticisms, 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 struggles on fracking
Fetterman struggled to detail his position on fracking, given he once said he never supported the industry and “never” will.
Oz came prepared on the issue, hitting Fetterman when asked about it.
“He supports Biden’s desire to ban fracking on public lands, which are our lands, all of our lands together,” Oz said. “This is an extreme position on energy. If we unleashed our energy here in Pennsylvania, it would help everybody.”
When Oz raised Fetterman’s comments about fracking, Fetterman pushed back.
“I absolutely support fracking,” Fetterman said. “I believe that we need independence with energy and I believe I have walked that line my entire career.”
He added, “I have always supported fracking and I always believe independence with our energy is critical.”
But that isn’t true – Fetterman has a long history of antipathy toward the practice of injecting water into shale formations to free up deposits of oil and natural gas that were not economically accessible before.
“I don’t support fracking at all and I never have,” Fetterman told a left-wing YouTube channel in 2018 when running for lieutenant governor. “And I’ve, I’ve signed the no fossil fuels money pledge. I have never received a dime from any natural gas or oil company whatsoever.”
When the moderators noted that position, Fetterman appeared at a loss for words.
“I do support fracking and I don’t, I don’t, I support fracking and I stand and I do support fracking,” Fetterman said.
Oz dodges – again – on abortion
Oz has declined for weeks to give a firm answer about how he would vote on a bill proposed South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
And this debate was no different.
“There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions,” Oz said when asked about abortion, before turning the issue on Fetterman and calling him “radical” and “extreme.”
But when directly asked how he would vote on the Graham bill, Oz declined to answer, claiming he was giving a bigger answer by saying he was “not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do.”
The lack of an answer gave Fetterman an opening.
“I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. “You know, if you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr. Oz then you have a choice. But if you believe that the choice for abortion belongs with you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for. Roe v Wade for me is, should be the law.”
Fetterman, however, went beyond that position during the primary.
When asked by CNN whether he supported “any restrictions on abortion,” Fetterman said he did not. He took a similar position during a primary debate.
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Oz used the moment, again, to call Fetterman out, saying it was “important” for Fetterman to “at least acknowledge” that he had taken another position on abortion.
But it was an Oz comment that Democrats, including the Fetterman campaign, have seized on after the debate.
Oz said he thought the debate about abortion should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders,” a continuation of his argument that states, not the federal government should decide the issue.
Top Democrats see the comment as an opening to link Oz with Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, a state senator who introduced a 2019 bill that would require physicians to determine if a fetal heartbeat is present prior to an abortion and prohibit the procedure if a heartbeat is detected.
Their argument: Oz thinks politicians like Mastriano – either as state senator or possibly as governor – should decide the issue.
The Fetterman campaign announced after the debate it would put money behind an ad highlighting the Oz comment.
Should Fetterman have debated?
The Fetterman campaign went to great lengths to avoid debating – until the criticism from editorial boards, the Oz campaign and others became too untenable to keep resisting.
After watching the debate in Harrisburg, even though Fetterman’s speech has shown signs of considerable improvement with every passing week since his May stroke, it’s an open question whether it was a wise decision to put him on the stage with Oz. It was, at many points, 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 prosecute a consistent case against Oz and to keep up with the speed of the hourlong debate. Oz, for his part, rarely talked about his rival’s recovery from a May stroke. Of course, he didn’t have to.
If any Pennsylvania voters missed the debate, not to worry.
There’s sure to be millions of dollars’ worth of new ads – replaying many of the uncomfortable moments – from the top 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 one will certainly reverberate for the rest of the campaign.
Neither candidate runs away from Trump and Biden
In an age when politicians are being careful about how they embrace President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, that caution was not on display Tuesday night.
When asked if he would back Trump in 2024, Oz – who received Trump’s endorsement during the contentious Republican primary in the commonwealth – said, “I will support whoever the Republican party puts up.”
“I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president, but this is bigger than one candidate,” Oz said.
And for his part, Fetterman did not run away from Biden, who has made Pennsylvania – which he flipped back to Democrats in 2020 – one of the few states he has repeatedly visited during the 2022 midterms.
“If he does choose to run, I would absolutely support him, but ultimately, that’s ultimately only his choice,” Fetterman said. “At the end of the day, I believe Joe Biden is a good family man, and I believe he stands for the union way of life.”
A deep contrast in style
It was clear Oz was more comfortable than Fetterman on the debate stage – something Fetterman aides expected and attempted to highlight ahead of time with a pre-debate memo noting, “Dr. Oz has been a professional TV personality for the last two decades.”
But the differences were apparent from the outset.
Fetterman appeared nervous on stage, drawing a sharp contrast with Oz, who was at ease, often smiling and seemingly comfortable.
Fetterman attempted to hit back at Oz’s near constant barbs, at times interrupting while the candidate was answering – most noticeably during the closing arguments.
“You want to cut Social Security,” Fetterman interjected as Oz was speaking about meeting seniors worried about their Social Security checks.
Oz kept speaking, as moderator WPXI anchor Lisa Sylvester chimed in, “Mr. Fetterman, it’s his turn for his closing.”
Oz avoided attacking Fetterman’s stroke recovery, a move that was out of step with his campaign, which at times used a mocking tone to attack the Democrat. But Oz did point out that his opponent only agreed to take the debate stage once.
“This is the only debate I could get you to come to talk to me on, and I had to beg on my knees to get you to come in,” Oz said.
Fetterman declines to release more medical info
Fetterman again declined to release more medical information beyond the two letters his primary doctors have put out. Most recently, Fetterman’s doctor wrote that the Democrat “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”
Fetterman said he deferred to his “real doctors” on whether to release more medical information, a subtle dig at Oz, and stressed his presence on the stage and activity on the campaign trail was proof enough that he was fit for the job.
“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, big crowds,” Fetterman said. “You know, I believe If my doctor believes that I’m fit to serve, and that’s what I believe is appropriate.”
When pressed by moderator WHTM abc27 News anchor Dennis Owens, Fetterman replied, “My doctor believes I’m fit to be serving.”
This story has been updated with more from the debate.