HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The biggest moment in perhaps the most important election of the year, one that could determine partisan control of the US Senate, happens here Tuesday night.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman will face Republican Mehmet Oz, a celebrity television doctor, in the only debate of the race to succeed Republican Senator Pat Toomey.
The stakes are incredibly high. Fetterman’s poll results over the summer have been reduced to statistical ties within the margin of error, following more than $35 million in Republican ads, many of which have painted him as soft on crime. And, outside of the events he has held in recent weeks as he has taken on a more rigorous public schedule, it will be the first opportunity for many voters to see and hear from Fetterman since he suffered a stroke just days before the primary. May. The Democrat, who revealed that he faces auditory and speech processing problems, common in patients recovering from a stroke, He has done few interviews since then.
“This is like watching two undefeated heavyweights finally step into the ring to meet for the title,” Rich Luchette, a Democratic national strategist who is not directly involved in the race, told NBC News. “In fact, there probably won’t be a single more important debate this election cycle. Every moment will be critical.”
WHTM, an ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, will host the debate, which begins at 8 pm ET and will be broadcast live across the state. Debate organizers and campaigns agreed to use captions to allow Fetterman to read the spoken and transcribed questions and answers instantly.
On Monday, Fetterman’s campaign distributed to reporters and other “interested parties” a memo that portrayed the debate stage as a place where Oz, a political newcomer, would feel more comfortable than Fetterman.
Senior adviser Rebecca Katz and campaign manager Brendan McPhillips characterized Oz as a seasoned TV pro while clinging to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer analysis in which “leading political reporters” wrote that Fetterman was “not good at debates.” “Even before the stroke.
“We’ll admit it: This is not John’s format,” Katz and McPhillips wrote.
“The TV studio is Oz’s comfort zone,” they added. “This guy is a media-savvy artist who literally built his career (and his fortune) by performing on camera as a daytime TV host.”
Such expectation-setting is common in debates, with campaigns often eager to set a standard that is easy to beat and then get better coverage that could sway voters. The Oz campaign did not release a memo of its own, although its communications director said in an email that Fetterman “ultimately … would have to answer” for his positions on crime and surveillance. Another Oz campaign aide sent an email drawing attention to the Fetterman team memo.
“Ahead of Tuesday night’s debate in the US Senate in Pennsylvania, the Fetterman campaign is desperately trying to manage expectations of their candidate before he faces Mehmet Oz in the only general election debate in which Fetterman would agree to participate long after early voting had begun in the Keystone state.” Oz Rapid Response Director Reagan McCarthy wrote in an email.
Oz, a heart surgeon, had used the debate schedule as a political weapon to draw attention to Fetterman’s stroke and recovery. Oz wanted at least five debates, including one the day after Labor Day. Fetterman’s campaign took issue with the way Oz’s team mocked his health, which included an offer to pay for medical staff that might have been necessary had Fetterman agreed to debate sooner. Democrats accused the Oz team of “bullying” and questioned whether such rhetoric was appropriate coming from a doctor.
“I feel like I’m going to get better and better, every day,” Fetterman told NBC News in an interview this month. “And by January, I’ll be gone [to] be, you know, much better. And Dr. Oz will continue to be a fraud.”
Oz, in his own interview with NBC News this month, maintained that his problem with Fetterman was not so much his health as his refusal to release medical records. Last week, Fetterman’s campaign published a letter from his primary care doctor in which he states that he is “recovering well” from the stroke and has “no work restrictions,” although auditory processing issues persist.
Fetterman’s senior strategists mentioned those issues in their pre-debate memo and also anticipated what they called the “unprecedented” but “necessary” use of subtitles.
“We are prepared for allies of Oz and the right-wing media to circulate malicious viral videos after the debate that attempt to paint John in a negative light due to awkward pauses, the lack of some words and the mixture of other words” , Katz and McPhillips wrote. “The captioning process can also lead to delays and errors in exchanges between moderators and candidates. In fact, because the captions will be written by humans in real time, on live TV, there is bound to be a certain amount of human error in the transcription, which can cause temporary communication issues at times.”
But Chris Pack, a Republican strategist who is under contract to the Republican National Senatorial Committee, a key player in Pennsylvania this year, dismissed such concerns.
“John Fetterman made it very clear that he was recently medically cleared without ‘work restrictions,'” Pack said, “so anything short of a home run will continue to add to his credibility problem.”