The debate lasted an hour and covered a dozen topics, but there was only one question to be settled in Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate: Is John Fetterman up to the job?
Critics — and even some Democrats — say the lieutenant governor failed the test.
From his opening remarks (“Goodnight, everyone!”) to his random shouting during Dr. Mehmet Oz’s closing statement, Fetterman raised more questions about his mental acuity than he answered. Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, attempted to address those concerns in his first minutes on stage, calling it the “elephant in the room.”
“I had a stroke. He [Oz] has never let me forget that,” Fetterman said. “And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down and I’m going to keep coming back up.”
In a sign the campaign knows it had a bad night, however, the Fetterman team released a post-debate statement complaining about “delayed captions filled with errors.” And it didn’t help that Fetterman yet again refused to release his medical records.
The post-debate reviews weren’t good.
“Anyone watching today could tell there was only one person on that stage who can represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate: Dr. Oz,” said retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, whose seat the two candidates hope to fill. “It’s sad to see John Fetterman struggling so much. He should take more time to allow himself to fully recover.”
Joe Scarborough, host of “Morning Joe” on leftwing TV network MSNBC tweeted, “This is painful to watch regardless of one’s politics. John Fetterman’s ability to communicate is seriously impaired. Pennsylvania voters will be talking about this obvious fact even if many in the media will not.”
Delaware Valley Republican Craig Snyder, who has crossed the aisle to endorse Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, reluctantly acknowledged Fetterman’s failed performance. “His impairment is clear. Anyone with any sympathy feels for him. I don’t hold any brief for Oz, but I think Oz won the night.”
Some Democrats disagreed, of course.
“I think John did a good job,” said Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) Asked if he had any concerns about Fetterman’s health, Casey said “I don’t. John is ready to do the job on Day One.”
And the Fetterman campaign declared victory.
“He did remarkably well tonight – especially when you consider that he’s still recovering from a stroke and was working off of delayed captions filled with errors. John won countless exchanges, counter-punched aggressively, and pushed back on Oz’s cruelty and attacks.”
While viewers may have been focused on Fetterman’s fumbling performance, the News Nation moderators pressed forward with their questions. The most glaring division was on the issue of abortion. Oz was pressed on whether he would vote for a national federal abortion limit of 15 weeks, proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C). He repeatedly staked out the state’s rights position, saying it is not an issue for the federal government.
“I am not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do,” Oz said, adding he would leave it up to “women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”
The “local political leaders” line is likely to appear in a Fetterman ad soon, political pros say.
On fracking, Fetterman repeatedly claimed that not only does he support the practice, but he’s always supported it.
“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.”
Fact-checkers were quick to note the many times Fetterman had publicly and repeatedly said he opposed fracking.
And Oz worked hard to make crime part of the conversation, even turning a question about the legal dangers facing President Donald Trump into an attack on Fetterman over his infamous shotgun-wielding encounter with a Black jogger in Braddock. Oz challenged Fetterman to finally apologize to the man at whom he pointed the gun. Fetterman refused.
Oz also had a strategy of positioning Fetterman as “too extreme” for Pennsylvania, frequently invoking the name of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Fetterman responded that Oz used the name so much, people might think he was running in Vermont.
But in the end, Fetterman’s struggles dominated the debate’s storyline.
“It’s hard to watch that debate and think John Fetterman is up to the job as senator,” said GOP strategist Charlie O’Neill. “His attacks on Oz fell flat, not because of the after-effects of his stoke but because Oz responded well. In contrast, Fetterman had no response when his leftwing extreme agenda was called out.
“Auditory issues or not, Fetterman fell short tonight, while Oz shined.”
According to reports, Fetterman declined to meet with reporters or answer questions after the debate.