John Fetterman’s debate performance on Tuesday night was greeted with dismay by many of his sympathizers – with a CNN panel widely panning the Democrat hopeful Chris Cuomo saying he ‘struggled’ and Barack Obama’s former senior adviser saying Fetterman ‘did not help’ his cause.
Fetterman, 53, had a stroke on May 13, and has fought to regain his strength, telling voters that he was making great strides but was still suffering some lingering speech and auditory impediments.
In advance of the debate – the only one for the Pennsylvania Senate race – Fetterman’s campaign had tempered expectations, saying there would be ‘awkward pauses’ and ‘delays and errors,’ because the Democrat would be reading closed captioning due to his auditory processing issue.
Fetterman is being challenged by TV doctor Mehmet Oz, hoping to claim the Senate seat for the Republicans on November 8.
The incumbent lieutenant governor, Fetterman had likely hoped for some support from CNN’s panel, but the verdict was damning.
Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman for Pennsylvania, said he was ‘astounded’ and ‘stunned’ by Fetterman’s poor performance, while Alyssa Farah Griffin, Donald Trump’s former communications director, said she found it ‘painful to watch’.
Even CNN’s host, Alisyn Camerota, said she was disturbed by the spectacle.
Pennsylvania Senate hopeful John Fetterman at points struggled to get through his hour-long debate with Republican Dr Mehmet Oz
Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (left) debated Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz (right) on Tuesday night in Harrisburg
CNN’s panel on Tuesday night was highly critical of Fetterman’s performance
Camerota, right, said that she felt Fetterman was not speaking with his previous clarity
Charlie Dent, a Republican former congressman, was strident in his criticism of Fetterman’s performance on Tuesday night
‘I’ve interviewed him many times as lieutenant governor,’ said Camerota.
‘And he sounds – he’s sounded different before the stroke. In the interviews, he was much more, sort of, clear spoken than what I’m hearing.’
Dent said Fetterman was not fit to be on the debate stage.
‘I thought someone should have invoked the mercy rule 20 minutes into the debate,’ he said.
‘I don’t know if it was the stroke or he’s just a lousy debater or if he doesn’t understand the issues.
‘He was flustered he, was confused. He should have not been out there.
‘And I’ve had a number of people say why was this guy in on the ballot after that?
‘I don’t know if the debates matter that much. But people watch that, they are going to question his capacity to serve.
‘The bar was set very low. It should’ve been set lower.’
Republican hopeful Dr. Mehmet Oz participated in the Pennsylvania Senate debate on Tuesday night in Harrisburg
‘I want to be careful because I think some of the most consequential leaders in history have had different kinds of disabilities. I don’t think it should preclude someone from serving,’ she said.
‘But what we saw today was someone who was not ready to be in office.
‘And the lack of transparency leading up to this actually shocked people watching.
‘I found it extremely hard to watch.
‘And the question I found myself asking is: is the way that he’s struggling a result of his stroke? Or is it because he does not have a grasp on the issues?’
On NewsNation, Chris Cuomo said he was troubled by the performance.
‘John Fetterman struggled,’ Cuomo said. ‘He clearly is dealing with health issues that affect his ability to process and his ability to speak. Clearly, fitness for office is going to be on the table.’
He added: ‘That may not be fair, to some, for me to say – but if the voters aren’t talking about it, I’ll be shocked.’
Other Democrats agreed.
David Axelrod, a Democrat strategist who served as a senior adviser to Obama, tweeted: ‘Fetterman needed to show he’s sufficiently recovered, and this debate surely did not help.’
And while some praised Fetterman’s bravery in appearing on the debate stage at all, Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York Magazine, said: ‘There is no amount of empathy for and understanding about Fetterman’s health and recovery that changes the fact that this is absolutely painful to watch.’
Republican critics were gleeful.
‘OMG John Fetterman it’s worse than any of us could have ever imagined,’ tweeted Donald Trump Jr.
‘At this point the moderator is filibustering to make sure he doesn’t get any more Qs. I think that’s 4 in a row to @DrOz.
‘Even today’s partisan hack media can’t cover for Fetterman being brain dead!’
And Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s speechwriter, tweeted: ‘Just so we are all clear: that was Fetterman WITH weeks of prep and specialized computer assistance throughout.
‘So what you just saw is the very, very best Fetterman can do. Which is terrifying.’
Fetterman at times struggled to get through his hour-long debate with Oz, with his delivery often halting and choppy.
His TV host rival, meanwhile, turned on the charm he had honed over 13 seasons of his show, and attacked Fetterman for being ‘extreme.’
The pauses and stumbles happened throughout the debate.
At one point Fetterman was asked to clarify his position on fracking, as moderators pointed to a 2018 interview where the lieutenant governor expressed broad opposition to the practice, but not a ban.
‘I do support fracking – I don’t, I don’t – I support fracking, and I do support fracking,’ he answered.
At another, when Fetterman was asked to specifically about charges Oz made about some the Democrat’s campaign ads being pulled down for being factually inaccurate, Fetterman, instead, stuck to the topic of abortion.
‘I’m going to let Mr Fetterman respond specifically to the ads being pulled off the air, and we’re going to return to you, Mr Oz,’ said one of the moderators.
Fetterman didn’t acknowledge the question.
‘Yeah, I want to look into the face of every woman in Pennsylvania. If you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr. Oz, than you have a choice, but if you believe that the choice for abortion belongs between you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,’ Fetterman said.
‘Roe v. Wade for me, should be the law, he celebrated when it went down.
‘And my campaign would fight for Roe v. Wade – and if given the opportunity to codify it into law.’
Over the course of the debate, Fetterman twice refused to release his full medical record to the public.
‘My doctor ultimately believes that I’m fit to be serving and that’s what I believe,’ Fetterman said.
Both candidate opened the debate in attack mode.
‘I’m running to serve Pennsylvania, he’s running to use Pennsylvania,’ Fetterman said of Oz.
‘Here’s a man who spent more than $20 million of his own money to try and buy that seat.’
Fetterman also labeled Oz a ‘liar’ and chided the TV doctor for having 10 houses, saying that he couldn’t understand the struggles of everyday Pennsylvanians.
Fetterman attacked Oz for having products with his name on them made in China.
Right away Oz went after Fetterman on crime.
‘John Fetterman, during this crime wave, has been trying to get as many murderers – convicted and sentenced to life in prison – out of jail as possible,’ the TV doctor said.
After Oz said Fetterman had called the Pennsylvania energy industry a ‘stain’ on the state, the Democrat pounced.
‘He has never met an oil company he doesn’t swipe right about,’ Fetterman said.
A new poll taken up until the day before John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz’s first and only debate shows the Democrat’s lead over his Trump-backed rival sitting at only 2 percent
Oz confirmed that he didn’t believe the minimum wage in Pennsylvania should be raised to $15 across the board, explaining he wanted to preserve the right for businesses to pay workers less.
‘I think market forces have already driven up the minimum wage,’ Oz said.
‘But John Fetterman thinks the minimum wage is the weekly allowance from his parents.’
On abortion, Oz said he didn’t think the federal government should handle the decision – suggesting he wouldn’t support Senator Lindsey Graham’s 15-week federal abortion ban, but not answering the question directly.
‘I want women, doctors, local political leaders, leading the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive,’ Oz said.
‘To put the best ideas where states can decide for themselves.’
Oz had moderated his position, having previously called abortion at any stage ‘murder.’
Fetterman has consistently had a small edge in polls, which continues, though several recent surveys show it’s close.
On Tuesday, a CBS News survey put the distance between the two candidates at two points.
According to the survey, 51 percent of likely Keystone State voters back Fetterman, compared to 49 percent who back Oz.
The Democratic populist’s lead falls well within the 4.4-percent margin of error.