Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman on Sunday sought to allay concerns about his health after suffering a near-fatal stroke earlier this year, at a campaign rally focused on abortion rights in suburban Philadelphia.
Speaking at times in a halting and clipped fashion, Fetterman took aim at his Republican opponent in Pennsylvania's Senate race, celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, for questioning his fitness to serve. "Unfortunately," he said, "I have a doctor in my life doing that."
He spoke for about 10 minutes before moving slowly off the stage. He walked into the crowd, shaking hands, greeting people and smiling for selfies as AC-DC's "Back in Black" played.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor, has largely kept off the campaign trail since a stroke in May that he said almost killed him. Oz has seized on the issue, suggesting Fetterman's health would prevent him from carrying out his duties if elected.
Polls show Fetterman leading Oz in a race that will help determine whether President Joe Biden's Democrats hold onto their razor-thin margin in the U.S. Senate. The race for the seat held by retiring Republican Pat Toomey is important enough that both Biden and former President Donald Trump have traveled to the state in recent weeks to promote their parties' candidates.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss their concerns, five state Democratic Party officials interviewed in the past two weeks expressed worries about Fetterman's health and whether Republican attacks were swaying voters.
"It's important for people to see John Fetterman out on the campaign trail and to see for themselves that he's all right. In a state where one [percentage] point can decide an election, it matters," said Joe Foster, a state Democratic committeeman from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Fetterman held his first public event after his stroke in August, and has made a handful of campaign appearances since, including at a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh. His campaign confirmed he relies on closed captions to conduct interviews due to hearing damage. He has said the symptoms are temporary.
Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Cavello said he is up to the job.
"John marched for over two hours in the rain in Pittsburgh's Labor Day parade, and spoke at two other events afterwards," Cavello told Reuters on Friday. "Anyone who's seen John speak knows that while he's still recovering, he's more capable of fighting for PA than Dr. Oz will ever be.
Fetterman rallied with abortion-rights advocacy group Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia's largest suburban county as he seeks to fire up women voters concerned about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to end the nationwide right to abortion.
"Women are the reason we can win," Fetterman said.
The stakes are high in Pennsylvania, where the governor's race will decide whether women will maintain their access to abortions. Fetterman has vowed to help protect that access, while Oz says he's "100% pro-life" but supports exceptions in cases of rape or incest or if the life of the mother is at risk.
Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg University, said bread-and-butter campaign events like Sunday's take on added meaning following the stroke.
"He doesn't have to be pre-stroke John Fetterman, but people need to see that he's capable," Borick said.
Oz used an initial refusal by Fetterman to debate to argue that his rival was either afraid of him or concealing the scope of the damage done by the stroke.
"John Fetterman is either healthy and he's dodging the debate because he does not want to answer for his radical left positions, or he's too sick to participate," Oz told reporters last week, according to media accounts.
Fetterman has now agreed to debate in October, but his 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.
"Let's be clear, this has never really been about debates for Dr. Oz," Fetterman said in a statement. "This whole thing has been about Dr. Oz and his team mocking me for having a stroke because they've got nothing else."
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