By Jarrett Renshaw
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman will try to play down concerns about his health after a stroke he suffered earlier this year at a rally outside Philadelphia on Sunday to drum up support of abortion rights.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, has been largely sidelined from the campaign trail since suffering a stroke in May that he said nearly killed him. His Republican opponent, wellness celebrity Mehmet Oz, has weighed in, suggesting that Fetterman’s health would prevent him from serving if elected.
Polls show Fetterman ahead of Oz in a race that will help determine whether President Joe Biden’s Democrats maintain their slim edge in the US 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 over the past two weeks expressed concerns about Fetterman’s health and whether Republican attacks are affecting voters.
“It’s important for people to see John Fetterman on the campaign trail and see for themselves that he’s OK. In a state where a (percentage) unit can decide an election, it matters,” said committee member Joe Foster of Democrats in the state. from the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Fetterman held his first public event since his stroke in August and has since made a handful of campaign appearances, including at the Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh. His speech has stopped at times, and his campaign has confirmed that he relies on closed captioning to conduct interviews because of a hearing impairment. He said the symptoms are temporary.
Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Cavello said he is up for the job.
“John marched for over two hours in the rain at the Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh and spoke at two other events afterward,” Cavello told Reuters on Friday. “Anyone who has seen John speak knows that while he is still recovering, he is more able to fight for PA than Dr. Oz will ever be.
Fetterman will rally with the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia’s largest suburban county as he seeks to fire up female voters worried about the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to end the nation’s right to abortion.
The stakes are high in Pennsylvania, where the governor’s race will decide whether women will keep their access to abortions. Fetterman has vowed to help protect that access, while Oz says he is “100% pro-life” but supports exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother’s life is in danger.
Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg University in Pennsylvania, said campaign events like Sunday’s take on added meaning after the stroke.
“He doesn’t have to be John Fetterman before the stroke, but people have to see that he’s capable,” Borick said.
Oz used an initial refusal by Fetterman to debate to argue that his opponent was either afraid of him or hiding the extent of the damage caused by the stroke.
“John Fetterman is either sane and avoiding the debate because he doesn’t want to answer for his radical leftist positions, or he’s too sick to participate,” Oz told reporters last week, according to media reports.
Fetterman has now agreed to debate in October, but his campaign is considering using a closed-caption screen for the event so he doesn’t miss a word as he continues to recover from his stroke.
“Let’s be clear, it was never about discussing Dr. Oz,” Fetterman said in a statement. “This whole thing is about Dr. Oz and his team making fun of me for having a stroke because they have nothing else.”
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)