By Jarrett Renshaw
HARRISBURG, Penn. (Reuters) -U.S. Senate candidates Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz traded attacks on issues from crime to inflation in the lone debate of a Pennsylvania race that will help decide whether Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Fetterman, the state’s 53-year-old lieutenant governor, has since summer lost his lead in polls to Oz, a 62-year-old celebrity doctor backed by Donald Trump, as concerns about rising inflation have helped sour voters on President Joe Biden’s Democrats ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
The debate represents a major political test for Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May that left lingering problems with his speech and hearing that sometimes cause verbal miscues. The debate hall included two closed-caption monitors posted above the moderators that relayed dialogue to Fetterman.
Fetterman, who spoke haltingly and repeated phrases at times, addressed his health issues in his opening statement, calling it the elephant in the room.
“I had a stroke. [Oz] never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down but I’m going to keep coming back up,” Fetterman said.
He later refused to commit to releasing his private medical records. “Transparency is about showing up. I am here for the debate,” he said.
U.S. inflation has hit 40-year highs, inflicting pain on consumers and forcing Democrats such as Fetterman to play defense on an issue that polling shows is voters’ top concern. Oz and Republicans have sought to tie Democrats’ big-spending bills combating issues including COVID-19 and climate change to rising consumer prices.
Oz said his experience as a heart surgeon taught him how to make difficult decisions.
“I’ll make them cutting our budget as well to make sure we don’t have to raise taxes on a population already desperately in pain from the high inflation rate,” Oz said.
Fetterman questioned whether Oz can really empathize with American families.
He called inflation a tax on working families, saying, “Dr. Oz can’t possibly understand what that is like.”
Fetterman said the rising costs only bolster his support for a federal $15 minimum wage, something Oz opposes putting into law.
The two squared off on the issue of abortion.
Oz, who opposes abortion but supports exceptions for rape, incest, or if the mother’s life is at risk, was pressed if he would support a measure pushed by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham that would ban all abortions after 15 weeks.
“Any bill that violates what I said, which is the federal government interfering with the state rule on abortion, I would vote against,” Oz said.
Fetterman has said he would support codifying the Roe v. Wade decision overturned by the Supreme Court this year if elected and would do away with the legislative procedure known as the filibuster that requires 60 of the 100 senators to agree on most legislation.
“If you believe that the choice for abortion belongs to you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,” Fetterman said.
A CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released Tuesday ahead of the debate found Fetterman leads by just 2 points over Oz, 51% to 49%, down from his 5-point lead in mid-September. The race has been among the most expensive in the country, with Fetterman raising $48 million through September and Oz raising $35 million, including millions of his money.
The race to succeed retiring Republican Pat Toomey is Democrats’ best hope at gaining ground in the 50-50 Senate, which they control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
A win in Pennsylvania could offset losses elsewhere, as Democrats are defending embattled incumbents in states including Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. Republican control of either the House or Senate would be enough to stop Biden’s legislative agenda.
Oz sought to pin down Fetterman on his position on fracking natural gas, a major industry in Pennsylvania that is often opposed by liberals and environmentalists. Fetterman once supported a ban on fracking.
Pressed by the moderators about why he changed his fracking views, Fetterman was briefly at a loss for words, then repeated the phrase, “I do support fracking.”
Democrats had bet that reproductive rights would be an animating issue in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, but the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey data shows that inflation and the economy are far and away the most pressing issues among those who say they are likely to vote.
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell, Lincoln Feast & Shri Navaratnam)