The campaign behind Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman’s bid for the Senate admitted on Monday that expectations for the Democratic nominee are low as he prepares to debate his Republican rival, Dr. Mehmet Oz.
The two candidates will debate live for one hour on Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. in what will likely be the only scheduled face-to-face encounter ahead of Election Day. The arrangement was only recently confirmed as Fetterman, who has stuttered and lost his train of thought in multiple public appearances after suffering a stroke days before the Democratic primary, had promised to debate Oz “sometime in the middle to end of October” on a “major television station.”
In an email to reporters, the Fetterman campaign acknowledged that “this isn’t John’s format,” arguing Oz has a distinct advantage because of his career as a television host. “John is ready to share his vision for Pennsylvania, defend his record, and make the case against Oz,” the message said. “He’s going to be talking about his real ideas to help real people.”
The debate comes as many polls, which had shown Fetterman ahead of Oz for months, swing in favor of the celebrity cardiologist. One survey from market research firm Wick showed Oz leading Fetterman by 4.5 points.
Fetterman will use a monitor during the debate to help with lingering auditory processing issues from the stroke, his campaign said. Multiple videos of the candidate battling through speeches have spread online in recent months.
“We are prepared for Oz’s allies and right-wing media to circulate malicious viral videos after the debate that try to paint John in a negative light because of awkward pauses, missing some words, and mushing other words together,” the email continued. “John has had a remarkable recovery, but the ongoing auditory processing challenges are real. The campaign insisted on closed captioning technology because it’s necessary.”
Fetterman’s persistent health issues have been a significant liability weeks before Election Day. According to a poll from Emerson College and The Hill, roughly 34% of voters in Pennsylvania are “extremely or very worried” that the nominee’s health would render him unable to complete his duties in the Senate, marking an 11-point increase from three months ago.
“He is a unique candidate with a strong personal brand that transcends partisanship,” the email added. “That’s what voters are going to see on the debate stage, and it’s why John is going to win this race — even if he doesn’t win the debate.”
Even leftist members of the media have acknowledged the health challenges in recent weeks. NBC News reporter Dasha Burns revealed that Fetterman struggled to understand their conversation ahead of a recent sit-down interview, during which he responded to oral questions after reading captions on a computer screen. Even with the equipment, Fetterman at times stuttered and had trouble finding words.
In the aftermath of the interview, many left-leaning reporters began criticizing Burns, causing the journalist to defend her network’s choice to raise questions about Fetterman’s health. Gisele Barreto Fetterman, the wife of the Democratic candidate, said that Burns was “ableist” for noting that her husband has not provided a meaningful update on his recovery.
“If this happened in a school, if this was a child that was ableist towards another child or a teacher, there would’ve been issues stated. There would have been new training done,” she contended. “What is being done at the media after a reporter came out so openly ableist towards a person? I think shocked and appalled, but sadly not surprised. I know there’s still so much to do, but it would be great to see some accountability, to actually see real change.”