Feltman and Oz face off in Pennsylvania Senate debate on abortion, inflation, crime and more

Tuesday night’s much-anticipated Pennsylvania Senate debate was a fast-paced event focused on politics but with relatively few personal attacks on the key race that has defined who controls Congress to divide the upper chamber.

It also makes the Democrats lieutenant. Gov. John Fettman’s stroke symptoms are back in the spotlight — as he says, he’s talking about his resilience and resilience, and as he says, it’s a noteworthy but not a disqualifying challenge.

When Feltman took office, many eyes were on his health. He spoke intermittently and at times inconsistently throughout the debate, even more so than he did on the campaign trail after returning to the field in August three months after a stroke. Sometimes he seems to have a hard time completing his answers.

Two monitors hung above the host’s head, recording questions and Republican Mehmet Oz’s responses in real time to help address Fetterman’s auditory processing problems that outside neuroscientists say do not indicate cognition in stroke survivors question.

Fetterman has also worked with speech therapists. His doctor said last week that he was ready to “full work” in the office.

A few times on Tuesday, though infrequently, Feltman paused for a while before answering questions while reading the transcript.

Shortly after the debate began, he cited his stroke and the sometimes derisive criticism his rival’s campaign faced as a result.

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PHOTOS: Members of the media watch on a TV monitor as Republican candidate Mohamed Oz confronts Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fettman in the only candidate debate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  February 25, 2022.

Members of the media watch on a television monitor as Republican candidate Mohammad Oz confronts Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fettman during the candidate’s only debate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. February 25, 2022.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: I had a stroke. He never let me forget that,” Feltman said in his opening remarks, repeating a line within an hour. “It knocked me down, but I’ll keep getting up.”

Oz, a former surgeon and popular TV presenter, made no mention of his opponent’s health on stage.

Both candidates were forced to answer inconsistent views on policy: For example, each received past comments about fracking that contradicted what they said on the tracking issue.

“I strongly support fracking,” Oz said when asked about his comments in 2014 against the industry, which employs thousands of Pennsylvanians but has scrutinized its environmental impact.

The host also asked Feltman to draw parallels between his recent public support for fracking with his harshly critical comments in 2018.

“I’ve always supported fracking,” he insisted.

Feltman embarrassed about the difference: “I do support fracking…I do support fracking.”

He and Oz also tried to capitalize on that when asked about their candidacy.

“I want to see the face of every woman in Pennsylvania,” Feltman said as the debate turned to abortion access, contrasting his views with his opponent, who called himself “pro-abortion.”

“If you believe that the choice for your reproductive freedom belongs to Dr. Oz, then you have the choice,” Feltman said.

“To me, Roe v. Wade should be the law,” he added, referring to the National Abortion Guarantee that was overturned by the Supreme Court this summer.

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Photo: A handout photo provided by abc27 shows Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. John Fettman (left) and Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Dr.  Mehmet Oz (R) shakes hands before the debate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, October.  February 25, 2022.

A handout photo provided by abc27 shows Democratic candidate Lt. Governor John Fettman (left) and Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) shakes hands before the Nexstar Pennsylvania Senate debate at WHTM abc27 in Harrisburg, PA. February 25, 2022.

Greg Nash, Handout from EPA via Shutterstock

Feltman, however, sidestepped questions about whether he would support any restrictions on abortion, including in the third trimester.

The host also kept following up on whether Oz would support the South Carolina senator. Lindsey Graham has proposed a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks, with few exceptions.

As he did to reporters, Oz refused to answer yes or no, insisting instead that he opposed federal control of the issue and would prefer to leave it to the states — by women, their doctors and local politicians to deal with it, he said.

“I would vote against any bill that violates what I’m talking about, which is federal interference with state regulations on abortion,” Oz eventually admitted.

Meanwhile, on the crime front — an issue he exploited as he narrowed the polling gap he yawned — Oz boasted that he had the support of multiple police unions in the state, while Feltman defended himself, Opposing the misdemeanor charge, claiming Oz “has no experience” with public safety.

As mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, he has successfully curbed gun violence and has a proven track record of addressing public safety issues, Feltman said.

“We should be talking about crime and inflation — those issues are hurting Pennsylvanians,” said Oz, who has repeatedly touted plans to “unleash” the state’s energy industry in the debate to boost wages and support and help as he envisions Lower the high price.

Oz gave the example of a woman who could no longer afford her groceries — a frustrating problem, he said.

Photo: Members of the media prepare to cover the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democratic candidate John Fettman and Republican candidate Mohammad Oz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 10.  February 25, 2022.

Members of the media prepare to cover the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democratic candidate John Fettman and Republican candidate Mohamed Oz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. February 25, 2022.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock

He said Feltman was a “radical” who would not be budget conscious and would raise taxes.

Feltman said Oz would not vote in Congress for the Democrats’ Reducing Inflation Act, which would allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of some prescription drugs, citing Oz’s wealth and relative lack of Pennsylvania roots.

“He has 10 huge mansions,” Feltman said. “We have to fight corporate greed and we have to make sure we also fight price gouging.”

When asked to explain his plan to crack down on price-gouging companies, Feltman didn’t answer, talking more broadly about “how inflation is hurting Americans” and Oz “never able to stand up for working families across America.”

Elsewhere, Feltman said he supports laws raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current wage. Oz said he wants the minimum wage to be higher than that, but driven by market forces, not laws, through his plan for the state’s energy companies.

The two candidates also disagree on the value of federal student loan forgiveness — something Feltman supports — and Oz thinks he has a clearer plan to reduce college costs.

Campaign reacts after debate

Tuesday was the only debate Feltman agreed to after Oz’s pleas and criticism, and before his campaign tried to lower expectations for his performance, two senior aides told reporters in a memo on Monday, Debating “Not John’s Format” and citing Oz’s years on TV.

In the minutes after the standoff ended on Tuesday night, his campaign mobilized — in their words — to show his performance.

“We’re excited about John’s performance,” spokesman Joe Calvillo told reporters.

The campaign announced late Tuesday that it planned to run an ad targeting Oz for one of his answers about abortion, in which he said policy should be left to states democratically, but more specifically involving “a woman, A doctor and local political leader”.

Meanwhile, the Oz camp declared victory.

“We saw a debate tonight, and it was a complete disaster for John Feltman,” adviser Barney Keller told reporters. “His inability to defend any of his radical positions really shows that.”

Both candidates will be back in the running for seats on Wednesday, with Election Day in less than two weeks and early voting underway.

Heading into Tuesday, the polls had shrunk considerably, with FiveThirtyEight’s average now showing Feltman leading by less than 3 points, down from nearly 11 points six weeks ago.

Will McDuffie is one of seven ABC News campaign reporters stationed in battleground states across the country. Watch as we cover all the twists and turns of the midterms with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Hulu’s “Power Trip: Power Seekers and Power Chasers” every Sunday.

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