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Fetterman faces high stakes at Pennsylvania Senate debate

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) is facing a potential make-or-break moment Tuesday as he squares off with his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz in the first and likely only televised debate of the state’s marquee Senate race.

Fetterman has faced repeated questions about his health since suffering a stroke in May. But the scrutiny was amplified considerably earlier this month after an NBC News interview showed him using his closed captioning system to communicate.

Adding to the pressure are recent polls showing a tightening race, as Oz has hammered Fetterman on not only his health but also his track record on handling crime as the state’s lieutenant governor — and two snapshots of the race show as much.

The debate, which is hosted by WHTM in Harrisburg, will be aired nationwide on NewsNation. Both WHTM and NewsNation are owned by Nexstar, which also owns The Hill.

An AARP Pennsylvania poll released on Tuesday showed Fetterman leading Oz 48 percent to 46 percent, putting him within the margin of error, while a Fox29-InsiderAdvantage poll showed the two tied at 46 percent. 

“In the sincere hope that John can really hold himself up to the scrutiny that comes with a high-profile debate, and I think he can,” said T.J. Rooney, a former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman. “Through video and things he’s done going back to July, he’s in such a much better place today than he was then that I hope that strength is able to be better depicted during the course of the debate.”

“You worry anytime anybody goes into a debate. It’s not a fear, but it’s more of a hope knowing what John has gone through,” Rooney continued. “The stakes are high.”

Fetterman’s recovery could be a significant factor in the debate, with critics raising questions about whether he is healthy enough to adequately perform the duties of a U.S. senator. 

On Wednesday, his campaign released a note from his doctor saying he was in good health and does not have work restrictions. However, Fetterman’s symptoms of an auditory processing disorder could impact how he comes across to viewers in a high-pressure televised setting. 

Democrats concede that Oz, who hosted his own television show for over a decade, has the upper hand going into the forum. 

“Obviously this is Oz’s turf,” said one Democratic strategist. “We’re talking about a debate between a 20-year TV celebrity and a guy who is still recovering from a stroke.” 

“That’s just the reality of this,” the strategist added. 

On top of that, Fetterman faced criticism for his debate performances during the Democratic Senate primary earlier this year, which took place prior to his stroke. 

“The reality is it’s not his biggest strength,” a second Democratic operative told The Hill. “One thing that I think is very true if you watch those debates is he starts slow and then improves.” 

Fetterman’s allies instead are pointing to his reception from voters on the ground in Pennsylvania, arguing that a televised debate will not be the race’s singular pivotal moment. 

“Actually doing the work is far more important than parachuting in from New Jersey and being really slick on camera,” the first Democratic strategist said. 

Fetterman’s campaign has touted his own appearances on the trail, particularly at rallies he’s held in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the campaign said 443 people turned out at a rally he held in conservative Butler County. Last Saturday, the campaign said it turned out 637 people at a rally in Delaware County. 

“Tactically, I think a televised debate favors Dr. Oz, but overall I’d much rather be John Fetterman than Mehmet Oz in this race,” the first Democratic strategist said. 

For Republicans, the main fear heading into Tuesday night centers on the expectations game, as questions have proliferated for months over whether Fetterman can literally speak coherently on stage. If he does clear that low bar, the night may be considered a success for Democrats and their chances to pull out this race. 

“Unfortunately, the expectations are near nothing for Fetterman. If he gets up there and can string sentences, it doesn’t matter how crazy they are, that’ll probably be enough. But I’m not sure he’s going to do it.” one Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist told The Hill, insisting that Fetterman must show more than that. “Fetterman has to land some effective punches because I think Oz is winning right now, and this is the only debate. He has to change the trajectory somehow.”

Expectations-wise, the situation is reminiscent of the first presidential debate in 2020 when allies of former President Trump for weeks questioned President Biden’s mental acuity and sharpness, dubbing him “Sleepy Joe.” The one-two step of a solid Biden debate performance coupled with Trump’s heckling handed Biden a debate win.

Of course, there are differences. Biden was a longtime national politician then who had debated for years, including against Republicans in general elections — headlined by his vice presidential debates against then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and former Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). 

For Republicans, the nightmare debate scenario still looms in the back of their minds.

“The one red flag that I don’t want to see is when Fetterman f—- up, Oz should not pile on. … The moment that would suck is when a guy is clearly struggling and Oz says ‘See! This guy can’t be our senator,’” the Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist added. “That could come across as a little callous.”

“There’s a temptation to do it. There’s a want to put a period on the sentence. But also, you have to trust the viewer that they’re able to see it themselves,” the strategist said.

Tags Donald Trump John Fetterman John Fetterman Mehmet Oz Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Senate debate Pennsylvania Senate race
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