Fetterman, Oz agree to Oct. 25 debate, but feud over terms

Pa. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (left), the Democratic nominee for the state's U.S. Senate seat, and Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar and Matt Rourke)

Pa. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (left), the Democratic nominee for the state's U.S. Senate seat, and Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar and Matt Rourke)

Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman of Pennsylvania said Wednesday that he has agreed to an Oct. 25 televised debate against his Republican rival, Dr. Mehmet Oz, although the men feuded about its terms in what has become a flashpoint in the high-stakes campaign.

The debate, coming two weeks before the general election, follows weeks of cajoling by Oz, who has raised questions about the severity of Fetterman’s lingering effects from a May stroke and pushed for as many as seven debates.

It will be held in the studio of a Harrisburg TV station.

Oz’s campaign said in a statement that Fetterman had agreed to the debate only “after being hit with massive criticism from state and national editorials and commentators for ducking.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Nevertheless, Oz will be at the debate “to share his vision for a better Pennsylvania and America, and he is ready (to) expose Fetterman’s record as the most far-left Senate candidate in America,” Oz campaign manager Casey Contres wrote in a statement.

Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, and Oz, a celebrity heart surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump, are vying to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in a race Democrats see as one of their best chances nationally to flip a Republican-held seat. The winner could help decide the chamber’s partisan control next year.

Fetterman’s campaign has said Oz was operating in bad faith by insisting on so many debates and said Oz’s motivation is to mock Fetterman for having a stroke. Fetterman still speaks haltingly and struggles to quickly respond to words he hears.

To accommodate that, Fetterman asked the station for closed-captioning during the debate and two practice sessions in the studio ahead of time.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In response, Oz’s campaign issued three requests.

It wants a moderator to tell the audience that Fetterman is using closed captioning to explain delays in his responses; practice sessions to not use actual debate questions; and the debate to be 90 minutes, instead of 60, because of closed-captioning delays.

Fetterman’s campaign said it had no problem with telling the audience about the closed captioning and said the practice sessions are simply walkthroughs that are routine before any debate. But Fetterman’s campaign insisted that the debate be 60 minutes and said Oz’s campaign had already agreed.

“For weeks Oz and his team have wet the bed about debates,” Fetterman’s campaign said. “Enough already, we are debating on the 25th, either show up or don’t, but now let’s get back to talking about the issues that matter, like how Oz would vote on the Senate abortion ban.”

In Pennsylvania’s last four U.S. Senate contests, debates have not been a major feature. All the debates took place in mid- to late October, with two debates in each race — except for the 2012 contest, which had one debate.

Fetterman has been recovering and was off the campaign trail for most of the summer following his May 13 stroke, which required surgery to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator and prompted a revelation that he had a serious heart condition. Fetterman has provided no access to his doctors or health records and has said he almost died.

He has done just a handful of media interviews and no press conferences since the stroke and has used closed-captioning in video interviews with reporters.

Fetterman’s campaign maintains that his doctors have said he is expected to make a full recovery.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal