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Candidates for Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat traded barbs in a formal setting

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Pennsylvania Senate candidates held their only debate last night. Democrat John Fetterman faced Republican Mehmet Oz.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One is a former small-city mayor and current lieutenant governor. The other is a TV doctor. Each has questioned the other's fitness for office. But beyond their personalities is a question of power. The U.S. Senate is closely divided. And the way the math works out, a Democratic win in this one race would give them a good chance to keep control. A Republican win in this one race would sharply increase their chance to regain power.

FADEL: NPR's Don Gonyea was in Harrisburg to see the candidates.

Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what impression did they make?

GONYEA: Well, Fetterman's health was a big question going in. Recall, he had a stroke...

FADEL: Right.

GONYEA: ...Almost six months ago. He's still recovering. His doctor says he's fit to serve, but he does have some auditory processing issues. So video monitors on stage provided him with written text of everything being said in real time during the debate. Fair to say he did not put concerns voters may have about his health to rest. He often spoke haltingly. This is his opening statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

JOHN FETTERMAN: Hi. Good night, everybody. I'm running to serve Pennsylvania. He's running to use Pennsylvania. Here's the man that spent more than $20 million of his own money to try to buy that seat.

GONYEA: Oz, on the other hand, was clearly very much at home in a TV studio. It felt like a performance. And while his answers were smoother than Fetterman's, he did dodge questions, choosing instead to attack his opponent.

FADEL: So let's talk about the issues they were debating. There's probably no issue more contentious this year than abortion. How did they address that?

GONYEA: It was a moment when you could feel Oz trying to reach into the suburbs to convince moderate and independent voters that he has a moderate position on abortion. He says he is pro-life but supports exceptions for rape, incest or protecting the life of the woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MEHMET OZ: As a physician, I've been in the room when there're some difficult conversations happening. I don't want the federal government involved with that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders - letting the democracy that's always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.

GONYEA: What he doesn't say is that many states have or may yet pass laws without those exceptions that he supports, including Pennsylvania, where the Republican gubernatorial candidate pledges to do just that. Here's Fetterman's response.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

FETTERMAN: Roe v. Wade, for me, is - should be the law. He celebrated when Roe v. Wade went down. And my campaign would fight for Roe v. Wade and, if given the opportunity, to codify it into law.

GONYEA: And that was one of Fetterman's most direct, most focused attacks on Oz.

FADEL: OK. So Democrats want to hammer Oz and other Republicans on abortion as a pivotal issue in these midterms, and Republicans have been successfully using crime as a wedge issue. What did that look like last night?

GONYEA: Oz hit that hard. He accuses Fetterman of wanting widespread release of violent criminals. And he attacks Fetterman's record from his time as mayor of the small town, Braddock, Pa. Here's Oz.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

OZ: A part of the problem is that we have taken away the ability of police to do their job. And that's on John Fetterman because John Fetterman has taken such a harsh position against them. He's undermined them at every level, taken away some of their funding.

GONYEA: Fetterman countered that gun violence went down during his time as mayor, but it's still an issue that polls show works broadly against Democrats.

FADEL: OK. So, Don, the only debate now in the books. What do we expect from the two campaigns with Election Day less than two weeks away?

GONYEA: Fetterman needs to deliver his final message convincingly. Expect him to get out in front of crowds. It's a more controlled setting, but he's done well with that in recent weeks. Oz maybe needs to be more relatable. His camp does think they have some momentum now. He has not been as present on the campaign trail. His events are often closed to most media or by invite only. But he does have an event today where he'll no doubt bask in what he sees as a big win in the debate. We'll also be watching to see what impact last night had on voters.

FADEL: NPR's Don Gonyea covering last night's debate in Harrisburg. Thank you so much.

GONYEA: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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