Oz Sharpens Attacks on Fetterman as Pennsylvania Senate Race Tightens

SPRINGFIELD, Pa. — Dr. Mehmet Oz, trailing in the polls and still contending with an image as an out-of-touch, carpetbagging elitist, is seeking to reboot his Senate campaign in Pennsylvania in the final sprint to November.

In recent weeks, Dr. Oz has sharpened his attacks against his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, blasting him for his initial refusal to debate and claiming that Mr. Fetterman was trying to conceal the extent of the damage done by a stroke in May.

He has enlisted help from prominent Republicans, campaigning with Senator Patrick J. Toomey and, on Thursday, bringing in Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, for a town-hall-style event. On Tuesday, he even appeared to distance himself from his political benefactor, former President Donald J. Trump, by suggesting that he would have rejected Mr. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

The Senate race in Pennsylvania is one of the most closely watched in the country. Its outcome could not only determine which party controls the chamber after the fall elections but illustrate just how firm of a grasp Mr. Trump has on his voters in 2022. Mr. Trump endorsed Dr. Oz and has held two rallies for him in recent months, but how deep Dr. Oz’s support runs among working-class Trump supporters in the state remains a question mark.

In addition to mocking Mr. Fetterman’s stroke recovery last week by listing bogus “concessions” he would make in a potential debate, Dr. Oz has been attacking his opponent as soft on crime, hitting him in particular over his support for “second chances” for felons as the head of the state’s Board of Pardons.

On Thursday afternoon, at the event with Ms. Haley, Dr. Oz enacted a “mock debate” in which he interrogated an absent Mr. Fetterman, asking, “Why do you believe that life sentences aren’t right even in cases of murder?”

Speaking in the suburban Philadelphia community of Springfield, he recalled his years as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania as he continued to criticize Mr. Fetterman on crime. “I lived in West Philly,” Dr. Oz said. “I could walk to school. It wasn’t a problem. I can’t make that walk today. You can’t either.”

Dr. Oz has sought to put his campaign on a more aggressive footing as polls show a tightening race. Mr. Fetterman’s double-digit lead in the polls at midsummer has shrunk to single digits in two surveys late last month. One reason may be that some independent voters are breaking for Dr. Oz. He led in late August with those voters in the two surveys — by 10 percentage points in a Susquehanna Polling and Research survey and by 12 points in an Emerson College Poll.

Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant in the state, said there was a model of how a Republican candidate wins a statewide race in purple Pennsylvania.

“You run to the right of Democrats on social issues, especially in the western part of the state, which helps you get conservative Democrats,” Mr. Nicholas said. “You hold your Republican base, and you get close to 60 percent of the independents.”

The challenge for Dr. Oz is coalescing that Republican base.

Both recent polls showed him winning only 77 to 78 percent of Republican voters, compared with Mr. Fetterman winning close to nine out of 10 Democrats. Some in the crowd at a Trump rally in May booed Dr. Oz, reflecting the views of certain Republicans that he is not conservative enough.

While the response to Dr. Oz at the former president’s rally on Saturday was largely more receptive, some jeers of “RINO,” a conservative insult meaning Republican in Name Only, could be heard.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for Dr. Oz, said the latest public polling predated the campaign’s messaging “about Fetterman dodging debates.” Mr. Keller added that internal polling showed Dr. Oz “fully consolidating Republicans and making excellent progress” with independents and some Democrats.

On Wednesday, Mr. Fetterman, who acknowledges ongoing “auditory” and language issues since his stroke, agreed to debate Dr. Oz after weeks of needling criticism by Dr. Oz and his allies. Mr. Fetterman said he would debate Dr. Oz in mid- to late October, with details to be worked out. He said there was no recent precedent in Pennsylvania for debates in September, dismissing an Oz attack that he had ducked a debate this week proposed by a Pittsburgh TV station.

“But let’s be clear, this has never really been about debates for Dr. Oz,” Mr. Fetterman said in a statement. “This whole thing has been about Dr. Oz and his team mocking me for having a stroke because they’ve got nothing else.”

Since returning to the campaign trail on Aug. 12, Mr. Fetterman has kept a light schedule of appearances, greeting supporters on rope lines after short speeches but avoiding open questions from attendees or from the news media. He and his campaign have attributed his verbal stumbles in speeches and one-on-one interviews to “auditory processing” issues in his brain, which are common in stroke survivors. He has said that he may use a closed-caption monitor in the debate to make sure he does not miss any words.

During the Republican primary, Dr. Oz seemed to contort himself, downplaying or disavowing some liberal views from earlier in his life — on abortion, guns — to curry favor with conservative voters. He scraped out a primary victory by fewer than 1,000 votes, aided by the Trump endorsement.

Now, with the general election in full stride after Labor Day, Dr. Oz may be trying to resume his earlier ideological shape as he seeks out independents and conservative Democrats.

The votes of suburban women in particular will be crucial in an election in which Democrats have gained fresh energy since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Emerson College survey found that abortion access ranked five points higher as an issue for Pennsylvania voters than it did nationwide.

Recently, Dr. Oz struck a mainstream conservative position on abortion, describing himself as “pro-life with the three usual exceptions, especially the health of the mother, but incest and rape as well.”

But his effort to distance himself from the fringe on the issue has been complicated. A recording surfaced recently from a primary event in which Dr. Oz suggested that life began at conception and any attempt to end a pregnancy was the same as murder. “It’s, you know, it’s still murder if you were to terminate a child, whether their heart’s beating or not,” he said in the recording.

Andy Reilly is a Pennsylvania member of the National Republican Committee whose home is in Delaware County, where Dr. Oz’s Thursday event took place. Mr. Reilly said it was crucial — and within reach — for Dr. Oz to improve on Mr. Trump’s low share of suburban voters in 2020, which cost him victory in the state.

“For Republicans to win in Pennsylvania, they don’t need to win the suburbs, but they need to compete,” Mr. Reilly said.

The Oz campaign’s attacks on Mr. Fetterman and crime have been another attempt to appeal to suburban and female voters. As lieutenant governor, Mr. Fetterman leads the Board of Pardons, where his advocacy has helped increase the number of felons leaving prison with commutations or pardons.

The Oz campaign and its allies have called Mr. Fetterman “dangerously liberal on crime,” as one television ad puts it, and have criticized him for statements he has made in the past, including that “we could release a third of our inmates and not make anyone less safe.”

Mr. Fetterman has said that he was repeating a statement that a former Republican-appointed state corrections secretary made to him.

A spokesman for Mr. Fetterman said that the candidate proved his dedication to fighting violent crime while mayor of Braddock, Pa., where he began his political rise.

“Dr. Oz lives in a mansion on a hill. What does he know about confronting crime?” said the spokesman, Joe Calvello. “John Fetterman has actually done it, and done it successfully. So he’s not going to be taking pointers from a guy who just moved here and has absolutely no understanding of the problems facing Pennsylvania.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/08/us/politics/pennsylvania-senate-oz-fetterman.html