Fetterman Returns to Senate Campaign Trail in Pennsylvania

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ERIE, Pa. — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, returned to the campaign trail on Friday evening for his first major public event since he suffered a stroke in mid-May.

Mr. Fetterman was by turns emotional and brash as he addressed an exuberant crowd, acknowledging the gravity of the health scare he faced while also slamming his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician, and pledging to fight for “every county, every vote.”

“Tomorrow is three months ago — three months ago, my life could have ended,” said Mr. Fetterman, who spoke for around 11 minutes and then greeted some attendees. At another point, his voice appeared to break as he added: “I just got so grateful — and I’m so lucky. So thank you for being here.”

The rally in Erie — in a swing county in what is perhaps the nation’s ultimate swing state — was an important moment in a race that could determine control of the Senate. It was Mr. Fetterman’s first official in-person campaign event of the general election as he runs against Dr. Oz, who squeaked through the Republican primary with the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Fetterman’s stroke occurred days before the Democratic primary in May, and in early June, his doctor said he also had a serious heart condition. His wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, introduced him on Friday as a “stroke survivor.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Fetterman has started to emerge, greeting volunteers, granting a few local interviews and attending fund-raisers and events, including with senators and other Senate hopefuls.

Several people who have spoken with him or heard him speak at private events described him as eager to return to the campaign trail, though some have also said it was evident when he was reaching for a word. He has acknowledged that challenge, and it was at times apparent on Friday when he started a sentence over or spoke haltingly.

“I’ll miss a word sometimes, or I might mush two words together sometimes in a conversation, but that’s really the only issue, and it’s getting better and better every day,” Mr. Fetterman recently told KDKA-TV, the CBS station in Pittsburgh.

But onstage on Friday, Mr. Fetterman also came across as high-energy, and his remarks sometimes took on the feel of a stand-up routine, fueled by a supportive crowd of 1,355 people, according to an organizer whose information was provided by the campaign.

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“There’s a lot of differences between me and Dr. Oz,” Mr. Fetterman said to laughter, as he wondered how many mansions his opponent owned.

Before the event, the line to get into the convention center snaked deep into the parking lot, drawing both older voters — including at least two who said they had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 — and a young woman in a glittering sash, who said she had chosen to spend her 19th birthday at his campaign rally. Several attendees of varying ages cited abortion rights when discussing their votes in the Senate race, after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“To watch, at my age, to have it taken away from my great-granddaughters, my granddaughters, my daughters, is just so upsetting to my heart, that I’m here for Roe v. Wade,” said Judy Pasold, 80, who thought Mr. Fetterman sounded “very well.” “That’s why it’s going to be Democrat all the way through. Probably. Because most of the Republicans have gone the other way, so far the other way.”

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Mr. Fetterman’s remarks were light on policy, though he nodded to his support for issues including abortion rights, raising the minimum wage and eliminating the filibuster.

Public polling has shown him with a strong lead over Dr. Oz, and he has far outpaced the Republican nominee in fund-raising. Outside spending from both parties is expected to be significant, though, and many strategists expect a close race in a narrowly divided state.

Despite his absence from the campaign trail, Mr. Fetterman and his team have pushed to define Dr. Oz as, essentially, a carpetbagger, casting the Republican as more comfortable in New Jersey — which had been his longtime principal residence — than in Pennsylvania, where he says he now lives in a Philadelphia suburb. It was apparent at the event that the focus on residency had broken through with some voters.

“I can’t consciously vote for Oz — he’s not a resident of this state,” said David Mongera, 70, who said the last Republican he voted for was Mr. Trump in 2016. “It’s a political move.”

Dr. Oz, for his part, has faced some challenges consolidating his base after a bitterly divisive and competitive primary earlier this year, alarming national Republicans.

But he has sought to project a vigorous presence, posting pictures from diners — he visited Capitol Diner in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday, his campaign said — and criticizing Mr. Fetterman over his absence from the campaign trail.

“Dr. Mehmet Oz is relentless in campaigning across the Commonwealth, listening and sharing concerns of the people he meets, and showing up for Pennsylvanians,” Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for Dr. Oz, said in a statement.

He has unveiled a site calling Mr. Fetterman a “basement bum,” and challenged his rival to commit to debates. Dr. Oz said on Friday that he had committed to five.

“It’s time for Fetterman to show up,” Dr. Oz wrote on Twitter. “Pennsylvanians deserve to hear from their candidates.”

Dr. Oz has also tried to link Mr. Fetterman to President Biden, who has struggled with anemic approval ratings, and to Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Mr. Fetterman backed in the 2016 presidential primary, working to cast the Democratic nominee as too liberal for the state.

Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Mr. Fetterman, did not commit to a specific number of debates but said Mr. Fetterman planned on debating Dr. Oz.

Democrats in Pennsylvania have been anxious to see Mr. Fetterman return to making more public appearances. Mr. Calvello said the “pace will be picking up” as the candidate continues to raise money and plans events like meet-and-greets this month.

Mr. Fetterman opened his event by mocking Dr. Oz’s criticism of him and later challenged him to hold an event of similar size.

“Are we in Erie?” he asked. “Or have I fit 1,400 people in my basement?”

Mr. Fetterman, who has pledged to campaign in areas that are often regarded as inhospitable to Democrats, also spent significant time during his speech emphasizing the political importance of Erie, which is closely divided.

“If you can’t win Erie County,” he said, “You can’t win Pennsylvania.”

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