PHILADELPHIA — John Fetterman said he is committing to attending one debate with his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, in the closely watched battle for the Senate in Pennsylvania, but his campaign is still discussing accommodations for his auditory processing problems.
The announcement comes as Oz has ramped up pressure on Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, to agree to a series of debates beginning in early September.
“We’re absolutely going to debate Dr. Oz, and that was really always our intent to do that,” Fetterman told POLITICO in an exclusive interview. “It was just simply only ever been about addressing some of the lingering issues of the stroke, the auditory processing, and we’re going to be able to work that out.”
Fetterman declined to specify which debate he will attend or provide an exact date for it, though he said it will “be sometime in the middle to end of October” on a “major television station” in the state.
He also said that the campaign is looking at the possibility of using a closed captioning monitor for the event so that he does not miss any words as he continues to recover from his stroke.
“We’re just exploring that,” he said of the closed captioning. “I have every ability to talk about all of these issues and have a full debate. And that’s really just the one lingering issue of the stroke — that some of my hearing was damaged a little bit, but it’s continuing to get better and better and better every day.”
Oz, who is trailing Fetterman in the polls, has for weeks sought to portray the Democrat as skipping debates either because he can’t defend his record or is too ill to go onstage. The attacks have sometimes been ugly, with one Oz aide saying that Fetterman might not have suffered a stroke if he’d ever eaten vegetables, a statement that the celebrity doctor later distanced himself from.
The latest broadside happened on Tuesday, when Oz held a press conference with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), where he argued, “John Fetterman is either healthy and he’s dodging the debates because he does not want to answer for his radical left positions, or he’s too sick to participate in the debate.” Toomey also suggested that Fetterman might not be able to serve in the Senate due to his lingering effects of the stroke.
“I’ve worked with senators in both parties, sadly, who have seriously diminished intellectual or communication capabilities, and I can tell you, that’s a very different thing,” said Toomey. “It’s really hard to be an effective voice for your constituents if you cannot engage in that way.”
Asked for comment on Fetterman’s debate commitment, Oz spokesperson Barney Keller said, “Is it possible to quote somebody laughing?”
Oz and his Republican allies aren’t the only ones who have pushed Fetterman to debate. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board wrote this week that if Fetterman “is not well enough to debate his opponent, that raises serious concerns about his ability to serve as a United States senator.” The newspaper also criticized the Oz campaign’s “antics.”
In the Wednesday interview, Fetterman shot back at Toomey, the Republican who he is running to replace after the senator announced in 2020 that he would retire at the end of this term. Fetterman said there is “no dignity” in Toomey’s comments and accused him of not being transparent in his dealings with Pennsylvanians.
“Here’s a man who is a coward, and he quit the Senate because he understands he can’t get reelected,” Fetterman said. “This is a man that has no town meetings or really has any kind of interaction with constituents ever.”
He also slammed Oz, saying that his attacks over debate-dodging were a “faux narrative from a very desperate campaign” that is “trying to capitalize on the fact that I’m having a stroke.” He insisted that his plan was always to debate Oz.
“Dr. Oz is taking a very, very big bet on mocking somebody that’s dealing with a major health challenge,” he said, “because there’s a lot of people all across Pennsylvania that whether they have themselves, or they have loved ones in their lives, that have real kind of challenges.”
Oz said on Tuesday during his press conference that the first debate with Fetterman should be held within the next 10 days. Oz agreed to a debate this week with KDKA-TV, but according to the news station, the Fetterman campaign said that time was not doable, though it did not rule out a future event.
The first general-election Senate debate in Pennsylvania in 2016 was held on Oct. 17, while the inaugural debate in 2018 was on Oct. 20.
Republicans have said that the debates should be held earlier this year than in past campaigns because, unlike in 2016 or 2018, no-excuse mail voting is now legal in Pennsylvania. Fetterman dismissed that argument as a “lame tactic,” saying that the GOP opposes vote-by-mail.
“I also want to point out that there is literally zero precedent about having debates in Pennsylvania, or really any state for as far as I know, at Labor Day,” he said. “All of these debates have always occurred in the middle to late October.”
Fetterman held his first public event after his stroke, a rally, in August. He has made a handful of public campaign stops since then, including appearing at a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh this week. His conversation with POLITICO was his fourth interview with the news media. He has also talked to MSNBC, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and KDKA-TV.
Fetterman conducted the interview over Google Meet, a video chat app, for about 17 minutes using closed captioning. He sometimes missed words while speaking, but spoke at a normal pace and took a number of questions on issues ranging from the debates to marijuana policy. He did not request to see the questions beforehand.
Asked if his doctors have given him a timeframe on when his auditory processing issues may be overcome, he said, “It can be six months. But no one really knows.” He added that “what I do know is that it gets better and better every day.”
Fetterman said that his physical health is good, and he walks five to six miles a day. He also defended his campaign as an ordinary one that includes rallies, interviews, fundraisers and talks with constituents.
“I’m feeling really great physically,” he said. “I’m actually feeling better than I have in really a long time,” he said. “And all of our doctors have never thought that we had any physical limits, and all believe that I’m going to make a full recovery as well.”