Oct 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Fetterman's painful debate

Capitol Hill's reaction to the Pennsylvania Senate debate was brutal for Democratic nominee John Fetterman, from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Why it matters: Multiple sources wondered why Fetterman agreed to debate when he clearly wasn’t ready. Fetterman struggled at times to respond to the moderators' questions, even with the assistance of a closed captioning device.

  • "Why the hell did Fetterman agree to this?" one Democratic lawmaker and Fetterman backer told Axios. "This will obviously raise more questions than answers about John's health."

Fetterman opened the debate by calling his health the "elephant" in the room.

  • "I had a stroke. He’s never let me forget that," he said, referring to GOP opponent Mehmet Oz.
  • “And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down and I’m going to keep coming back up.”
  • Fetterman did not commit to releasing his full medical records. "My doctor believes I'm fit to serve," Fetterman said.

The post-debate commentary on NewsNation focused primarily on Fetterman's health and capacity to serve.

  • NewsNation host Leland Vittert said "the biggest issue was John Fetterman's health and his ability to comprehend speech, and to then speak coherently on the issues of the day."

Another Pennsylvania Democratic official worried: "Everyone is nervous. I've traveled everywhere. Fetterman is a deep concern. And this debate will only increase it."

  • Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), on CNN: "It's sad to see John Fetterman struggling so much. He should take more time to allow himself to fully recover. "

The other side: Other stalwart Fetterman defenders argued that, despite the debate stumble, they gave him credit for at least showing up.

  • A senior Democratic official in Pennsylvania told Axios: “I wished Fetterman was in a better place to clap back. Overall, I argue it wasn’t great for us but still a draw. Remember in these next few weeks that Oz’s campaign is spending tens of millions of dollars against a man with a major medical condition.”

The bottom line: A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted before the debate found that 46% of respondents believed it's important for candidates to address Fetterman's health.

  • It's hard to see how Fetterman's debate performance alleviated the concerns of the skeptics.

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