PHILADELPHIA — Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon and Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, ratcheted up suspicion about the health of his Democratic rival Tuesday, questioning whether John Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke explains his reluctance to debate.
“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 in the debate,” Oz told reporters here at a news conference inside a cramped and partitioned hotel ballroom.
Oz would have preferred to spend the day after Labor Day — the traditional start of the fall general election campaign — preparing for his first televised clash with Fetterman in Pittsburgh. But Fetterman declined the invitation, citing lingering effects from his stroke, such as speech and auditory processing issues, and the Oz campaign’s earlier mocking of his health. So Oz instead found himself 300 miles away at a Courtyard by Marriott alongside Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., whose decision not to seek re-election opened the seat he and Fetterman are seeking.
Photographs of Oz, Toomey and Fetterman appearing at past debates served as props as both men argued that the Democratic nominee was ducking tough questions. Fetterman in recent weeks has appeared at several public events, including a Labor Day gathering with President Joe Biden, but outside of an MSNBC interview last week, he has taken few questions from reporters and has not committed to participate in any debates before the November general election.
“In addition to the character problem of being dishonest, if he’s really not able to debate, then there’s a big problem,” Toomey said, noting that Fetterman has offered optimistic accounts about his recovery. “As someone who served in the United States Senate for almost 12 years now, I have a really good understanding of how the place works. If John Fetterman were elected to the Senate, and he’s not able to communicate effectively, if he’s not able to engage with the press, if he’s not able to engage with his colleagues, he will not be able to do the job.”
In a statement later Tuesday, Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello noted that the Democrat marched in a Labor Day parade Monday and spoke at two events afterward.
"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," Calvello said. "And anyone who’s seen Dr. Oz speak knows he’s a complete fraud. We have said repeatedly that we are open to debating Oz, and we’re talking with networks, but let’s be clear: This isn’t about debates. This is about mocking John for having a stroke because they’ve got nothing else, and because they don’t want to talk about the fact that Oz wants to ban abortions and believes all abortion is 'murder.'"
Tuesday's news conference came on the same day that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board raised questions about Fetterman’s unwillingness or inability to debate.
“If Mr. Fetterman is not well enough to debate his opponent, that raises serious concerns about his ability to serve as a United States senator,” the newspaper’s editors wrote.
The editorial board also criticized Oz for his campaign’s “antics” in needling Fetterman with, among other snark, a suggestion that Oz foot the bill for medical personnel at the debates.
Fetterman, despite his limited schedule, has led Oz in post-primary polls, in part a reflection of how little Oz did to take advantage of a campaign trail he had to himself over the summer. But Oz’s aides have been taking swipes at Fetterman’s health for several weeks. One staffer — in response to a viral video that showed Oz butchering the name of a local grocery store while shopping for items to make a crudité, or veggie tray as more plainspoken Pennsylvanians might call it — suggested that Fetterman had a stroke because he doesn’t eat vegetables.
Oz has attempted to distance himself from those more pointed tactics. When a reporter asked him Tuesday if he would have made a similar comment to his own patient, Oz sidestepped.
“I look forward to John Fetterman criticizing my campaign on a debate stage,” Oz replied.
Tuesday's news conference at times served other purposes, allowing Oz to get out talking points he would have liked to deliver from a bigger platform.
At the outset, Oz spent several minutes portraying Fetterman as soft on crime and said it would have been his opening statement had Tuesday’s debate in Pittsburgh gone on as scheduled. Oz has hammered Fetterman for employing on his campaign two brothers who had been convicted of murder but were granted clemency after a unanimous vote by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which he, as lieutenant governor, chairs. Fetterman has said the brothers were wrongfully convicted and that “fighting for their release was one of the proudest moments of my career.”
When a reporter asked if one of the statements that Oz attributed to Fetterman was a distortion, he replied that the query would be “a wonderful question for the debate stage.”
Answers to other questions Tuesday illustrated differences between Oz and Toomey — and between Oz and former President Donald Trump, with whom the GOP nominee rallied over the weekend.
Oz reasserted that, as a senator, he would not have objected to certification of the 2020 election won by Joe Biden. Trump has falsely stated the election was stolen from him.
“I would not have objected to it,” Oz said. “By the time the delegates and those reports were sent to the U.S. Senate, our job was to approve it, which is what I would have done.”
Trump’s lies about the 2020 results fueled the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and his second impeachment. Toomey was one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump at that impeachment trial. Oz said Tuesday that he would not have voted to convict.
“I’m comfortable with my decision, but everyone has to make their own,” Toomey said when asked if Oz’s position bothered him. “I don’t expect everyone to make the same decision.”