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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politicsNorth America

Fetterman, Oz face off in debate with health and abortion in spotlight

Dave is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.

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The only U.S. Senate debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz began with Democrats fretting about their candidate, warning that Republicans would make hay out of his post-stroke stumbles.

It ended with Democrats hoping those stumbles weren’t enough to swing the election – especially a moment when Fetterman, confronted by an anti-fracking quote from four years ago, simply didn’t explain it, saying "I do support fracking" and struggling to make himself clear.

Democrats, for their part, highlighted exchanges dealing with Oz's position on abortion, where Fetterman pledged to codify Roe v. Wade and Oz said he favored "local political leaders" playing a role in restrictions.

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Fetterman, who spoke with Semafor for 20 minutes about crime this month, had been more comfortable in one-on-one settings without time-keeping. Before his stroke in May, Fetterman had never been particularly smooth, or cool when being attacked; he was effective in 2016 U.S. Senate debates when rivals gave him no chance to win, and struggled in primary debates this year against rivals who said he was unelectable and light on details.

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Republicans had two reactions when the debate was over. One was that Fetterman had mangled enough sentences to justify more questions about his health, a sometimes-fraught topic – other politicians had been elected after strokes – that they’ve dug in on. The other was that the fracking answer, on a topic that has bedeviled Fetterman since he started running statewide, was a good candidate for a quick negative ad.

Democrats wanted to move on, and make one Oz answer more viral than any Fetterman clip. “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive,” said Oz, describing who should determine when abortion was legal.

The Fetterman campaign clipped a few of its candidates’ answers, but was counting on voter dislike of Oz, and sympathy for Fetterman’s condition, to prevent real damage from the most strained answers.

Republicans believed Fetterman showed vulnerabilities on the issue as well. Accused of favoring abortion up to the moment of birth, a common attack line from Republican candidates this year, Fetterman said that “abortion is health care” and that he’d codify Roe v. Wade, without explaining that the overturned abortion ruling had allowed states to prevent late-term abortions.

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