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GOP rivals pile on 'Dr. Oz' during forum for Pennsylvania Senate candidates

It was the first time that Mehmet Oz and his top rival for the nomination, Dave McCormick, shared a stage. But it was Kathy Barnette who took the most swings.
Dr. Mehmet Oz
Mehmet Oz campaigns for the U.S. Senate at the Elk's Lodge in Carlisle, Pa., on Mar. 10.Mark Pynes / The Patriot-News via AP

The diagnosis from Mehmet Oz's confrontation Wednesday with his Republican opponents in Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary? Bruising.

At a forum sponsored by the Manufacturer & Business Association of Erie, the celebrity doctor known for his nationally syndicated TV show found himself under attack for his positions on drilling for fossil fuels and his past friendliness with Democrats. Several times, he pleaded for help from the moderator.

Dave McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who has emerged as Oz's top rival for the GOP nomination, landed the first blow.

"Mehmet, in your particular case, on your shows and in your columns, you've argued for more regulation in fracking," McCormick said in response to a question on energy policy. "You've made the case that there's health defects from fracking. And you've argued for a moratorium in Pennsylvania, like that's in New York."

Oz — who has opined on the negative health effects of fracking, including a 2015 column in which he and a co-author wrote approvingly of New York's ban on the process — quickly interrupted.

"I'm sorry, that's not true," Oz said before appealing to the moderator. "You let him attack me. ... That is wrong."

Pennsylvania's Senate race to succeed Republican Pat Toomey, who is not seeking re-election this year, is shaping up as one of the most expensive in the country. McCormick, Oz and super PACs supporting them have spent millions of dollars on TV ads. Both recently moved to the state to establish residency, though McCormick grew up in Pennsylvania before his business career took him elsewhere. Recent polls have shown McCormick leading Oz, with several other candidates trailing.

“I’m fighting for you, and unfortunately — good for the television stations, not good for anybody else — this campaign has devolved into fights on television,” Jeff Bartos, a businessman and GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, said at Wednesday’s forum.

The forum was the first time that McCormick and Oz appeared on the same stage together. Although the hosts stressed that the event was to be collegial and free of the attacks seen in the deluge of ads, there were moments of tension.

"This is not a talk show," the conservative commentator Kathy Barnette said in a direct jab at Oz. "This is reality, and we need people who understand what the issues are and who don't simply sit in a room, learn our talking points and then come back and parrot them to us. We need authentic voices for the Republican Party."

Barnette, more than McCormick, tested the forum's rules and took swings at Oz, at times drawing rebukes from the moderator.

"I am the only true conservative Republican on this stage," Barnette said in her closing statement. "We may have some Republicans who, their entire public career, they pretended to be a liberal working beside Oprah and Michelle Obama."

A frustrated Oz, who got his big TV break from Oprah Winfrey and later hosted Michelle Obama on his own program, jumped in again.

"She's not following the rules! I follow the rules," Oz said as the moderator threatened to mute microphones amid a barrage of loud crosstalk.

Barnette persisted with her criticism, expanding it in a way that also could have applied to the wealthy McCormick, though he did not attempt to interject.

"Most of you are sitting on the sidelines, because in the Republican Party we have this crazy notion that we only pick the richest person in the room who's willing to run for office," Barnette said. "How has that served us?"

Barnette also interrupted the opening seconds of Oz's closing statement, which he began by rhetorically asking why everyone was attacking him.

"Because you're a liberal," Barnette cut in.

When he resumed, Oz boasted of his Emmy awards and book sales.

"Imagine being so compelled, so worried about your country that you will give it all up and not feel an inkling of remorse for it — to feel cathartic, almost, that you've given all that up because now you can actually do what you know at the end of your life you'll look back on it realize was necessary, important and perhaps the most important contribution you'll make," Oz said.

"I don't mind being attacked," he added, moments after complaining about his treatment. "I'm pretty thick-skinned." 

The primary is May 17.