(Bloomberg) -- Pennsylvania Democratic US Senate nominee John Fetterman returned to the campaign trail, seeking to reassure voters that he is healthy enough to battle Republican Mehmet Oz in a November race that will determine control of the upper chamber.
Fetterman walked on stage Friday to a rousing applause from about 1,350 supporters, jam-packed in an Erie exhibition center as “Back in Black” by rock group AC/DC blared through speakers. The Pennsylvania lieutenant governor had been sidelined for three months after suffering a stroke in mid-May.
Wearing his trademark black hoodie, sleeves rolled up to reveal his tattooed forearms, Fetterman spoke more softly and deliberately than he did during the primary, occasionally slurring words during a brief 12-minute address.
“I’m just so grateful and so lucky,” Fetterman said. “Three months ago, I may not have made it. But now I’m standing right here in Erie. You are going to deliver for us, and I will deliver Pennsylvania for us, and I will clear the 51st vote in the Senate.”
Fetterman’s rally came just days before Monday’s deadline for a candidate to drop out of the race and his party to replace him on the ballot. The event marked a public rebooting of a campaign that was largely limited to Fetterman’s home -- leading Oz to mock him with a daily “basement tracker” that ended Thursday after 91 days.
“Wait, am I in Erie?” Fetterman said as he took the stage with his wife Gisele by his side. “Or have I got 1,400 people in my basement?”
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It was a live-action version of the social media-fueled campaign Fetterman has relied on all summer, taunting Oz as a “weirdo celebrity doctor” and jabbing the Republican for owning a New Jersey mansion.
Earlier in the day, Oz challenged Fetterman to a series of five televised debates.
“Now that Fetterman has returned to the campaign trail after a 90-day break, Pennsylvanians deserve to know whether he will engage in real debates or go back into hiding in his basement,” Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in a statement. The Fetterman campaign said he would debate Oz but has not yet committed to any particular forum.
Despite being sidelined from the campaign trail as he recovered, Fetterman has given Democrats hope that the party can flip a seat in a crucial swing state that President Joe Biden carried in 2020 and former President Donald Trump won in 2016.
Fetterman held an 11-point lead over Oz, who is backed by Trump, in one recent Fox News poll. They are vying to replace US Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, who is retiring. The Senate is currently deadlocked at 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.
Oz has quietly criss-crossed the commonwealth while Fetterman was off the trail. The celebrity physician of “Dr. Oz” television fame also released a campaign ad, showing himself jogging, a subtle juxtaposition to Fetterman’s health.
Between now and November, Fetterman must convince voters that he is healthy enough to serve if he is to ultimately win.
He has been seeing a speech therapist and occasionally misses hearing words, but is otherwise fit since having a pacemaker surgery after the stroke, he has said. He credited his wife for saving his life by rushing him to a hospital in a timely manner.
Fetterman’s health is of no concern to Maggie Gosnell, a 61-year-old retired truck driver from Waterford, a small town just south of Erie. “He’s a smart enough man and his wife will take care of him mercilessly,” she said. “You can’t get rid of a politician anyway.”
Erie is a swing county in the far northwestern corner of the state, showing why his campaign chose it for the reboot.
“We could have done this anywhere, but Erie is the ultimate swing county, the ultimate bellwether,” said Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Calvello. “This was intentional. We didn’t just throw a dart at a map.”
The campaign handed out Pittsburgh Steelers-style “terrible towels” with Fetterman’s name for the crowd to wave, a nod to its importance.
Erie County has historically over-performed for Democrats, voting overwhelmingly -- twice -- for President Barack Obama.
But Donald Trump bucked that with his history as a businessman and promises to restore manufacturing jobs, said Robert Speel, a professor at Penn State Behrend, who studies the impact of regional voting trends on national politics.
But Erie voters aren’t as socially conservative as Republicans elsewhere in the state, he said, and by 2020 many of those voters became disillusioned with Trump and returned to Democrats. Biden won the county narrowly.
Speel said Erie voters are particularly attuned to where candidates come from and favor those from western Pennsylvania. That could give Fetterman, the former mayor of the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, an advantage over Oz.
Erie County Republican Party Chairman Tom Eddy said Oz needs to do better at puncturing Fetterman’s image as the working man’s candidate. Fetterman grew up in an affluent suburb of York, Pennsylvania and attended Harvard University before going into social work.
“With Fetterman, this is kind of an act on his part,” he said. “That persona -- Oz has to counter that to be successful.”
Eddy said he thinks Fetterman’s lead will shrink once Oz starts to match Fetterman’s television ads and voters start paying closer attention after Labor Day. But Oz also has work to do to win over Republicans after a bruising primary against former Bridgewater Associates CEO David McCormick that portrayed Oz as a liberal masquerading as conservative, Eddy said.
“I’m worried about this election. It scares me,” Eddy said. “I don’t think it’s an absolute slam dunk, and it should be.”
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