Democrat John Fetterman’s debate performance has intensified the focus on his recovery from a stroke, leading some supporters to worry that his current post-stroke limitations could affect his narrow lead in the critical Pennsylvania Senate race against Republican Mehmet Oz.
If Fetterman’s showing changes the trajectory of the race, the debate could have nationwide ramifications, with Pennsylvania representing the best chance for Democrats to pick up a Senate seat in the evenly divided chamber. A CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released earlier this week found that 51% of likely voters support Fetterman, compared to 45% for Oz, an advantage narrowly outside of the survey’s margin of error. And a CBS News poll also released this week found a tightening race, with 51% of likely voters in Pennsylvania backing Fetterman and 49% backing Oz.
Though the effects of Fetterman’s stroke dominated some post-debate conversations, Oz’s comments about abortion – saying “local politicians” should contribute to women’s medical decisions – also rocked the boat. Abortion rights have been a flashpoint across the country, including in the commonwealth, and Oz’s words could hurt him with the suburban women voters both campaigns believe could be decisive on Election Day.
Overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday, Fetterman’s campaign was doing double duty, explaining again the lingering auditory processing and speech issues from his May stroke that caused him to request closed captioning on Tuesday night – but ultimately provided only limited aid, as he dropped thoughts, pushed words together and, at times, repeated phrases. But the campaign was also making sure no Pennsylvania voters missed Oz’s comment, announcing within hours of the debate’s end a new ad highlighting them.
At a Pittsburgh rally Wednesday evening, Fetterman conceded, “To be honest, doing that debate wasn’t exactly easy.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy having a stroke after five months. In fact, I don’t think that’s ever been done before in American political history,” he said.
To cheers from the crowd, Fetterman announced that his campaign raised more than $2 million following the debate, which campaign aides say they intend to invest into TV ads highlighting Oz’s comments on abortion.
“I may not get every word the right way, but I will always do the right thing in Washington, DC,” Fetterman said.
But as the Fetterman campaign seeks to change the subject to abortion rights, Pennsylvania voters are left to draw their own conclusions about the debate for the closing stretch of the race.
“Dr. Oz kind of picked on him, that’s how I looked at it,” said Craig Bischof, a fervent Fetterman supporter from Bedford. “He’s still having trouble from his stroke, so I thought he did a great job, I really did.”
Asked whether he demonstrated that he was ready to serve six years in the Senate, he said: “Oh, yes. He gets healthier every day. He’s come a long way. A stroke is a hard thing to get over.”
That was not a widely held view in lunchtime conversations with a half-dozen other residents of Bedford, a Republican-leaning town, in central Pennsylvania.
“It was embarrassing,” Jan Welsch said, offering a pointed critique of Fetterman’s performance on the debate stage. “Pennsylvania is in deep trouble, if they vote for Fetterman.”
While Welsch said she was uncertain about Oz’s candidacy before the debate, she said he demonstrated to her that he was a serious candidate, not just a former television celebrity.
“I really liked what Oz had to say,” Welsch said. “I had questions about Oz earlier, but after listening with him against Fetterman, it’s definitely Oz.”
In conversations with CNN, multiple Fetterman voters said that, while his performance made them anxious about his prospects with swing voters, they still planned to cast a ballot for him. In fact, none of the voters who entered the night planning to vote for the Democrat said they were planning to change their vote.
“It was tough,” said Karin Tatela, an educator from Chester County who was at the May event Fetterman had to cancel last minute because of his stroke. “I told my friend, I said, ‘I don’t really want to watch, it is kind of like looking at a car accident. You want to look, but you don’t want to look.’”
Tatela, however, said she still plans to vote for Fetterman.
“I cannot vote for that,” she said, talking a long pause to stop herself from attacking Oz. “I would never vote for Oz. I don’t care if they had to wheel Fetterman into the Senate in a hospital bed. But I think we could be in a little bit of trouble here.”
She is not alone.
“My opinion of who I am voting for hasn’t changed but I feel a little less comfortable in his ability to win the election because of how he performed,” said Andrew Charles, a Fetterman supporter who lives in Millersville, Pennsylvania, and works in manufacturing. “I just see a lot of red flags raising for people about his capabilities.”
Charles, who earlier this year attended a Fetterman event wearing a homemade T-shirt supporting the candidate, said he will still vote for Fetterman, but he found himself thinking about swing voters last night.
“If they were on the fence, they are probably not on the fence anymore,” he concluded, believing those voters will now back Oz.
Joe Pozzini, a union carpenter, said he had no concerns about Fetterman’s health when CNN spoke with him at a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, earlier this month. But after the debate, Pozzini worried about how the Democrat’s health could impact the race.
“I know how I’m voting. I’m Fetterman all the way, but it was kind of worrisome,” the lifelong Pennsylvanian said. “His message is still there, he’s still a strong candidate, it’s just I was kind of worried about the on-the-fence people.”
He added: “He got his point across I think, but it’s just, it was rough, it was rough, and someone on the fence might lean the other way and that’s worrisome.”
Fetterman acknowledged his stroke at the outset of the debate, seeking to humanize his recovery.
“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that,” Fetterman said, referring to Oz and his campaign’s frequent commentary on his recovery. “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.”
Influential Fetterman supporters, like Ryan Boyer, the first Black leader of the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, called the Democrat’s performance “a profile in courage.”
“Particularly my people in the African American community, know all too well that people have strokes. I have an uncle who had one and he’s a very intelligent guy, but it took him about a year and a half to get all the thoughts that he had in his head out of his mouth,” Boyer said.
He also told CNN that the union’s political arm, in a meeting immediately after the debate, had a “brutally honest” call and discussion about the candidates’ performances.
“To a person, I mean, listen, it was hard to watch, but they said that they understood him. We asked the question, ‘Did you understand what he was saying?’ And that’s the most important thing. ‘Did you understand his feelings?’And yes, it came off,” Boyer said.
Meanwhile, Boyer said Oz’s statement that abortion policies should be left up to “women, doctors, local political leaders” stunned him.
“They talk about cringeworthy because of Fetterman? It was cringeworthy when I heard that (from Oz). But it was a window into his soul,” Boyer added. “It was really amazing … So, now I want my local ward leader deciding something that’s going on with my daughter?”
While Oz avoided attacking Fetterman’s stroke recovery explicitly – unlike many of his campaign aides, who have mocked Fetterman’s recovery – the Republican did sprinkle seemingly derisive comments into the debate.
“John, obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand it,” Oz said during otherwise benign questions about vocational education.
Whether the debate will matter, however, is an open question.
Several Democratic operatives noted that very few undecided voters watch debates live, and while some will watch their local news coverage of the contest, most aren’t plugged into the day-to-day machinations of the Senate race, even less than two weeks out from Election Day.
“I thought he would have been better, but I don’t think it hurts him,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic consultant in Pittsburgh who led Katie McGinty through the state’s Democratic Senate primary against Fetterman in 2016 before she lost to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in the general election. “I think people understand that Fetterman had a stroke, and it affects his speech. But, they also think he’ll get better.”
He added: “At the same time, most swing voters are not very political and most likely didn’t watch … The undecideds at this stage of a campaign are completely unplugged.”
Additionally, ahead of the debate, almost 640,000 pre-election votes had already been cast in Pennsylvania, according to data from state election officials, and Democrats make up a wide majority of voters who have already cast a ballot in the Keystone State. As of Monday, 73% of Pennsylvania voters so far have been Democrats, while 19% have been Republicans. While the scale is smaller, the breakdown is similar to this point two years ago, according to data from Catalist.
To focus the post-debate coverage on Oz, Fetterman’s campaign announced minutes after the debate ended that it would put money behind an ad highlighting Oz saying that the debate over abortion should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders.”
The Oz comment is a continuation of his argument that states, not the federal government, should decide the issue. But when pressed repeatedly during the debate about a bill proposed by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would limit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Oz dodged, arguing he didn’t support federal legislation on the issue but wouldn’t give a firm answer on how he would vote were he in the Senate.
Top Democrats saw the comment as an opening to link Oz with Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, a state senator who introduced a bill in 2019 prohibiting an abortion 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.
“Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz’s radical belief that ‘local political leaders’ should have as much say over a woman’s abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors,” said Joe Calvello, campaign spokesman. “After months of trying to hide his extreme abortion position, Oz let it slip on the debate stage on Tuesday.”
The ad was out by midday Wednesday, telling voters, “Oz would let politicians like Doug Mastriano ban abortion without exceptions – even in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother. Oz is too extreme for Pennsylvania.”
Oz, for his part, barely mentioned the debate at a Wednesday event.
But to Republicans – and even some doctors who specialize in cardiology – Fetterman’s performance was concerning and raised questions about how transparent he has been about the impact of his stroke.
“He disgraced himself and is unfit for office,” said Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. “He hasn’t demonstrated any ability to handle the physical and communication obligations of being a U.S. Senator.”
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst and interventional cardiologist who has treated several high-profile politicians, said the debate was “difficult to watch.”
“Fetterman’s residual neurological injury is substantial,” Reiner said. “Much greater than his campaign has led the public to believe. It’s more than just processing hearing. It’s incredibly sad to watch.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Kit Maher contributed to this story.