Fetterman led the race by double digits, but Oz surged as Republican-leaning voters rallied and the environment generally appears to have improved for the GOP in recent weeks. The race in Pennsylvania now sits within the margin of error in most polls, putting it alongside pivotal states like Georgia and Nevada.
Republicans have sought to make an issue of Fetterman’s faltering public performance as he recovers from a stroke suffered during the campaign; his doctor said he continued to have auditory processing problems.
Below are some takeaways from the debate.
One obvious reason many tuned into Tuesday’s debate was the question of how Fetterman would do it. His campaign sought to significantly lower expectations in advance – taking a page from Herschel Walker’s playbook – acknowledging that he might have a rough night.
And it was a difficult night.
Fetterman quickly sought to address the “elephant in the room”, acknowledging in his opening statement that he would speak poorly and later pointing out his reliance on closed captioning.
“I had a stroke,” Fetterman said, before referring to Oz: “He never let me forget that.”
But while the Oz campaign has highlighted Fetterman’s health in the past, the GOP nominee clearly bet he didn’t need to focus on it — that viewers and his allies would without him. he only points out the problem. About the closest Oz came to referencing Fetterman’s health was when he said, “Obviously, I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand that,” and repeated one of his answers.
Fetterman was stopping by, consistent with his recent public performances, including an interview with NBC News. He started by saying “Good night” rather than “Good evening”. He often started a thought and changed course without finishing it. He used the wrong words. He has mostly tried to play it safe by sticking to boilerplate positions rather than deepening policies.
Regarding his health, he was given two chances to pledge to release more complete medical records, and he objected both times, arguing that his presence and the advice of his doctors should be good enough to the electors.
“…If my doctor thinks I’m fit to serve, that’s what I think is appropriate,” he said.
The question is how much that matters to voters. A CBS/YouGov Poll released earlier Tuesday showed little movement from last month on whether people think Fetterman is fit to serve. And to the extent voters say he isn’t, the movement has been among Republicans. About 6 in 10 Independents and 55% of respondents overall said he was healthy enough to serve.
That could change after a high-profile debate, but so far the needle hasn’t moved much – even though Oz has won in the polls (but possibly for other reasons).
2. Oz’s answer to abortion
Beyond that, the debate was notable for two responses that should feature as a continuation of the campaign.
For Oz, it was his answer on abortion. Like other Republicans in key races, he distanced himself from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (RS.C.) 15-week abortion ban proposal, saying he would oppose any which would prevent the States from deciding the question.
But at one point he stated this in a way Democrats will surely point out: While talking about who he thinks should decide the issue, he grouped “local political leaders” with women and doctors. .
“I want women, doctors, local political leaders to leave the democracy that has always allowed our nation to thrive to come up with the best ideas so states can decide for themselves,” Oz said.
Democrats thought they had a glitch moment: It’s the logical extension of Republicans’ stance on the issue, but Oz momentarily stuck politicians in the Democrats’ talking point about how abortion is a choice for women and their doctors.
Democrats want things to focus on abortion rights, and Oz might have given them a way to do just that — even if he otherwise tried to play it safe on the issue.
For Fetterman, the most stark answer concerned hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a major problem in Pennsylvania given the size of the industry there.
Moderators noted that both contestants seemed to take both sides of this question on multiple occasions. During the debate, Fetterman attempted to assert, “I have always supported hydraulic fracturing.”
In fact, Fetterman said quite the opposite as recently as 2018. As CNN reported, he said on YouTube while running for lieutenant governor, “I don’t support fracking at all. hydraulic, and I’ve never done it.
Fetterman walked a finer line on the campaign trail, saying he supports fracking “as long as it’s environmentally friendly and making sure we don’t contaminate our waterways.” But he offered a wider, unqualified position on Tuesday night.
And when moderators again referenced those comments from 2018 and pressed it on the apparent switch, Fetterman could only muster: “I support fracking. … I support fracking and I’m standing – I support fracking.
(Note: when the moderator was asking the sequel to Fetterman, they incorrectly indicated that the question was going to Oz.)
4. The struggle for the middle
Both candidates appeared to largely veer in the middle – reflecting how crucial independent voters will be in a close race in a swing state. In addition to his ruling on fracking, Fetterman said he doesn’t support adding more justices to the Supreme Court, as some liberals do, saying he prefers to focus on cases where he doesn’t. disagreed with the court: “It’s not about changing the rules; it’s about acknowledging where we are. (One thing Fetterman said he always supports: blowing up the filibuster.)
Oz, for his part, left open the possibility that he might have supported Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s (R-Pa.) gun control bill, which received little support from the GOP, while pointing out that he was not in the Senate at the time and would have tried to improve it. Oz said there were “parts of this bill that I really like”. And the above exchange aside, his answers on abortion were clearly aimed at finding common ground.
Oz was also asked if he would support Trump, whose endorsement proved huge in his primary victory. Oz initially balked, saying, “I will support whoever the Republican Party puts in place.” But when pressed, he was more specific – that he would support his benefactor. “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president,” Oz said.