Pennsylvania Democrats try to do damage control after shaky Fetterman debate

HARRISBURG, Penn., Oct 26 (Reuters) - Pennsylvania Democrats tried to do damage control on John Fetterman's U.S. Senate campaign on Wednesday, the morning after a shaky debate performance against Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz that showed the struggle Fetterman faces in recovering from a May stroke.

The lieutenant governor, whose campaign acknowledged ahead of time had never been a strong debater, spoke slowly and at times stumbled over words while trying to put Oz on the defensive on abortion during the two men's sole face-to-face meeting.

"I don’t know anyone, even the most staunch Fetterman supporters, who think that went well last night," a senior Pennsylvania Democrat told Reuters on Wednesday.

Democrats interviewed said the Fetterman campaign is surely doing quick polls to gauge how to repair any damage caused by the performance. Some took hope in how many voters had cast ballots before the debate -- some 685,000, more than two-thirds of them Democrats, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Since summer, Fetterman, 53, has lost his lead in polls to Oz, a 62-year-old celebrity doctor backed by Republican former President Donald Trump, as concerns about rising inflation have helped sour voters on President Joe Biden's Democrats ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

The race to succeed retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey is Democrats' best hope at gaining ground in the 50-50 Senate, which they control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate John Fetterman listens to Democratic candidate for Governor Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speak during a joint rally for Service Employees International Union workers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 15, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah Beier/File Photo

Fetterman's words on Tuesday night were frequently halting, and he often repeated phrases multiple times. Several Democrats said that his performance, while courageous, raised fresh concerns about his health.

Fetterman's campaign tried to change the subject, saying it would launch new TV ads highlighting Oz's debate comment that a abortion is a decision to be made by "a woman, her doctor and local political leaders."

"Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz's radical belief that 'local political leaders' should have as much say over a woman's abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors," said Joe Calvello, a Fetterman campaign spokesman.

The Oz campaign defended his abortion stance on Wednesday, and did not comment on Fetterman's health.

"Doctor Oz's position on abortion is that he's pro-life, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, and he opposes the federal government getting involved with states' decisions on that topic," said Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick. "Pennsylvanians have a clear choice: John Fetterman, who always takes the extreme position on nearly every topic - or Dr. Oz, who will bring balance to Washington."

Retiring Republican Senator Toomey told CNN on Tuesday night that "It's sad to see John Fetterman struggling so much. He should take more time to allow himself to fully recover."

Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis

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