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Fetterman accidentally raises stakes for lone Senate debate with Oz

John Fetterman’s struggle to navigate an interview with NBC News this week has raised the stakes for his lone Senate debate against Republican candidate Mehmet Oz later this month.

It has also put his campaign at something of a crossroads.

The Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania has spent months dodging inquiries about the status of his recovery from a stroke and refusing to allow access to his medical records. He’s structured his campaign schedule to insulate him from the kind of contact with media and constituents that could expose the extent of his cognitive difficulties.

Now, Fetterman is facing pressure to answer increasingly urgent questions about whether he is up to the task of serving in the Senate.


“It was criminal campaign malpractice to put him in a 30-minute interview with a national network and put him in that position,” Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist, told the Washington Examiner. “It looked bad. Is it going to turn the election? No. But it was a self-inflicted wound by the campaign.”

Prior to the interview this week, Fetterman’s aides demanded their candidate be allowed to rely on closed-captioning technology that displayed the NBC reporter’s questions on a screen for him to read as she asked them aloud.

The reporter, Dasha Burns, later said on the network that Fetterman did not appear to understand the conversation she attempted to have with him before the cameras started rolling, when he didn’t have the screen to help him.

And even with the aid of the closed captions, Fetterman stumbled a number of times. For example, he appeared to misunderstand a question about whether he was committed to debating Oz and insisted he was not before, when asked a second time, stressing that he was.

Paul Saphier, a board-certified neurosurgeon specializing in cranial, cerebrovascular, and neuroendovascular surgery, said the ways patients recover from strokes can vary dramatically. Fetterman’s campaign has withheld details about the effects of his stroke, making a public analysis of his condition impossible.

“Auditory comprehension is really complex,” Saphier told the Washington Examiner.

Strokes can affect different parts of the brain, Saphier explained, and can do particular damage when they hit the parts of the brain that control complicated cognitive functions such as differentiating between music and noise.

“When patients have strokes related to those areas, it is very hard for those people to make a complete comprehensive recovery that leaves them as if they never had any sort of issues,” he said. “That’s not to say that they can’t be independent. That doesn’t say they can’t communicate.”

Fetterman has largely avoided in-person interviews, extended interactions with voters, and situations in which he could get pulled off-script since suffering his stroke days before the May primary.

His campaign resisted committing to a debate with Oz for weeks and only locked down a date for one after pressure on Fetterman to do so grew to an unsustainable level.

Scott Jennings, a GOP consultant and commentator, said scrutiny of Fetterman’s health likely forced the campaign to make Fetterman available for an interview for which he seemed ill-prepared.

“They had very little choice,” Jennings told the Washington Examiner. “And so, I think obviously they were trying to put him in a setting that allowed him to sort of prove himself. I’m not sure they accomplished it, candidly.”

NBC’s framing of the Fetterman interview, and the way some other reporters approached it, drew ire from the Left, with liberals accusing the network of facilitating attacks on a disabled person.

But Republican critics maintained Fetterman’s interview performance raised legitimate questions about his ability to serve in the Senate.

“It’s the most deliberative body in the world,” Carney said, “whether it’s in committee hearings or it’s in the press conferences or talking to reporters in the hallway or on the floor of the Senate.”

Fetterman attempted to address the fallout from the NBC debacle Wednesday in another interview — this one with the PennLive editorial board. The interview was not in person and still featured moments of stumbling from the Democrat.

“The elephant in the room is that I had a stroke,” Fetterman said during the nearly hourlong clip. “There’s no secret that, sometimes, I’m going to miss words.”

With just weeks to go before Election Day, Fetterman has few chances remaining to demonstrate to skeptics that he’s bounced back enough to represent Pennsylvania.

“I think the Fetterman campaign has stretched this period of making this campaign literally about nothing as long as they could go,” Jennings said. “They have tried to make this thing about everything from veggie trays to dogs to the Eagles. And the reason they’re doing that is, they’re really running a campaign without a candidate.”

Jennings was referring to a series of made-for-social-media attacks that Fetterman launched on Oz, including one that involved a comment Oz made at a grocery store that was perceived as out of touch and accusations that Oz was associated with medical experiments on dogs.

“That’s over now. It’s October. You can’t really hide from it anymore,” Jennings said. “At some point, voters are going to find some of these distractions pretty trivial or even silly.”

Fetterman has said he plans to rely on the closed-captioning technology at the Oct. 25 debate with Oz.

The stakes, already high, rocketed up with Fetterman’s latest worrying display.

“If he had done 10 debates, it wouldn’t have mattered, but the fact that all the marbles are on one debate and this interview performance was so shaky, I think you’ll have a lot more interest in the race, and it might be more determinative than a normal debate,” Carney said.

Carney predicted far more voters will tune into the Fetterman-Oz debate out of sheer curiosity about how Fetterman will fare thanks to his high-profile misstep.


“I think it will make the viewership much higher because people are going to want to see for themselves, so you’ll have a lot more eyeballs on there,” he said. “So that makes the risk for Fetterman higher.”

For his part, Oz will have to walk a tightrope at the debate — working to highlight what he’ll say is Fetterman’s inability to serve without going too aggressively after a man clearly struggling with his health.

“I just think you can’t be a jerk,” Jennings said of his counsel for how Oz should approach the issue. “I know that’s good advice for most situations in life, but truthfully, I think there’s a way to talk about this, there’s a way to interact on it.”

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