By Mark Levy and Steve Peoples (Associated Press)

Harrisburg, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman acknowledged that health challenges have taken him down but vowed to “keep coming back” in the opening moments of his debate against Republican Mehmet Oz on Tuesday. The highly anticipated clash could prove crucial in the state’s high-stakes U.S. Senate race.

Fetterman, the 53-year-old lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, has admitted he “almost died” after suffering a stroke in May. On Tuesday night, he addressed what he called “the elephant in the room.”

“I had a stroke. He never let me forget it,” Fetterman said, pausing during his Republican opponent’s hours. “I can remember a few words, put two words together, during that debate. … It knocked me down and then I would keep coming back.

Fetterman insists he is ready for the Senate’s demands as he recovers from a stroke. Independent experts consulted by The Associated Press before the debate said they were recovering significantly. He used closed captioning during the discussion to help him process the words he heard.

Oz, a noted heart surgeon, downplayed his opponent’s health early in the debate, though he has repeatedly targeted Fetterman on the issue during the campaign. On Tuesday night, Oz att*cked Fetterman’s policies on crime, saying he was “trying to get as many m*rders out of prison as possible.”

Oz charged that “these radical positions extend beyond crime.

Although the debates have rarely affected elections in the modern era, the intense national interest in the prime-time issue — particularly in Fetterman’s performance — suggested that the debate was an urgent matter for Democrats to retain their Senate majority. It can be decisive in the main selection of the fight.

For Democrats, there is no better opportunity in America than the 2020 race to replace Biden’s state, Republican Sen. Pete Toomey, who is retiring.

For much of the year, it looked as if Fetterman was the clear favorite, especially as Republicans fought a messy nomination battle that left the GOP divided and bitter. But as Election Day nears, the race has tightened. And now, just two weeks before the final vote is cast, even the White House is privately concerned that Fetterman’s candidacy is in jeopardy.

Voting is already underway across the state. As of Tuesday, 639,000 votes had already been cast.

“This debate is huge, bigger than usual for a Senate debate,” said Republican activist Charles Gerow, a two-decade veteran of Sunday TV political talk shows.

Pennsylvania Senate candidates face off inside a Harrisburg television studio. No audience was allowed, and the host of the debate, Nextar Media, refused to allow an AP photographer access to the event.

The meeting was the first and only major statewide debate in Pennsylvania this year, as Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano could not reach an agreement on terms for the gubernatorial debate.

Fetterman is a star of progressive politics across the country, having developed a loyal following thanks to his blunt working-class appeal, unusual height, tattoos and unusual progressive policies. On Tuesday, the 6-foot-9-inch Democrat swapped his trademark hoodie and shorts for a dark suit and tie.

But Fetterman’s health has emerged as a central issue in the final weeks of the election, even as the candidates clash elsewhere on issues like ab*rtion, crime and inflation.

Oz led more than half a dozen debates, suggesting that the reason Fetterman disagreed with more than one of his statements was because the stroke had weakened him. Fetterman insisted that one debate was common – although two was more customary – and that Oz’s focus on debates was a sinister ploy to lie about his health.

Democrats noted that the format of the televised debate likely would have favored Oz even without the questions about the stroke.

Oz is a longtime television personality who hosted “The Dr. Oz Show” weekdays for 13 seasons following his debut as a regular guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2004. .

“This will always be a round game for John Fetterman,” said Mustafa Rasheed, a Democratic political consultant based in Philadelphia.

Fetterman asked for, and was granted, a closed captioning system for the debate, which shows everything said in writing on a large screen behind the moderators.

The Fetterman campaign said in a memo before the debate that closed captioning “will be typed by humans in real time, on live TV,” warning that it could lead to time delays, transcription errors and miscommunication. can “It is impossible and unavoidable to overcome,” the memo said.

Donald Trump endorsed Oz earlier in the year and campaigned with the Pennsylvania Republican in September, though the Republican Senate contender has downplayed his ties to Trump in recent weeks. Oz has since purged his website and campaign events of any mention of the former president in a state still under fire for his lies about the 2020 election.

Fetterman, meanwhile, has embraced Biden — even if he was reluctant to do so earlier in the year.

The Democratic president campaigned with Fetterman in Pittsburgh during the Labor Day parade and just last week headlined a fundraiser for Fetterman in Philadelphia. There, Biden said “the rest of the world is watching” and suggested Fetterman’s loss would affect his agenda.

Biden is also scheduled to headline the state Democratic Party’s annual pre-election dinner in Philadelphia on Friday.

Oz has faced pointed questions about his residency throughout the campaign.

For much of the year, Fetterman has seized on Oz’s tenuous connections to the state in social media posts and media campaigns.

Oz was born in Ohio, raised in Delaware and has lived in New Jersey for decades. In 2020, People magazine ran a feature on the New Jersey mansion that Oz and his wife Lisa “built from scratch 20 years ago.”

Later that year, Oz formally adopted the title of Pennsylvania. And the following year, 2021, he launched his Senate campaign.

Meanwhile, questions about Fetterman’s physical and mental strength persist.

Fetterman has declined calls to release medical records or ask reporters to question his doctors. Last week he released a note from his primary care physician, who wrote that Fetterman is recovering, shows no cognitive effects and is “able to perform full duties in public office.”

Fetterman’s campaign insists that he is now healthier than ever because he is paying more attention to his diet and exercise regimen of walking several miles a day. He is attending regular sessions with a speech therapist and taking medication.

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People reported from New York.

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Check back to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the 2022 midterm elections.

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