Longtime political observers were shocked by Democrat John Fetterman’s display in Tuesday night’s Senate debate against Dr. Mehmet Oz, in which the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor repeatedly stumbled over his words — and lapsed into incoherence on more than one occasion.
Despite using a closed captioning system to help him understand what the two debate moderators and Oz were saying, Fetterman repeatedly lapsed into uncomfortable silences and mixed up his words.
At one point the tattooed 53-year-old said, “I do not believe in supporting the Supreme Court” in response to a question about whether the high court should have its traditional nine justices.
“There is no amount of empathy for and understanding about Fetterman’s health and recovery that changes the fact that this is absolutely painful to watch,” tweeted New York magazine’s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi at one point.
In another awkward moment, Fetterman gave a jumbled answer following a long pause after he was asked about his stance on fracking.
“I do support fracking and —I don’t, I don’t, I support fracking and I stand and I do support fracking,” he managed to say after the moderator pointed out Fetterman had stated clearly in a 2018 interview that he did not support the controversial procedure.
Conservative attorney and podcast host Jeff Blehar noted that Fetterman’s answer was “gonna cost him in W. PA”, where fracking is a significant part of the local economy.
“I am no longer in the snide juvenile position where I can mock people with obvious difficulties as they age, or experience catastrophic medical events,” Blehar added. “I have…lived through it. But he shouldn’t be running, and aside from that, there was no good answer anyway to this flip-flop.”
After the debate, Democrats and journalists were left to pick up the pieces.
“It’s not his fault, but Lt. Gov. Fetterman struggled,” NewsNation host Chris Cuomo said off the top of his post-debate show. “And again, I’m not faulting him for it, I don’t think his preparation was great, but he clearly is dealing with health issues.”
“I spoke to Fetterman recently, and I expected him to be very bad tonight,” tweeted Charlotte Alter of Time magazine. “But he was much much worse than I expected (and much worse than in our one-on-one conversation.)”
“Democrats are asking the same thing post-debate: Why did Fetterman’s team allow him to take the stage tonight? No one I’m talking to on the left has a good thing to say about what just took place,” tweeted The Hill reporter Al Weaver.
“Whoever decided to let Fetterman debate should never be involved in Democratic politics ever again,” pronounced Elections Daily editor-in-chief Eric Cunningham.
Republicans were quick to pounce on the Democrat’s struggles.
“Shame on Democrats and the Pennsylvania media for pretending like @JohnFetterman is well. This is so sad,” tweeted former President Donald Trump’s onetime acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.
“I can’t believe it’s this bad. I feel bad for Fetterman .This is sick,” political commentator Tim Pool chimed in.
Others were less sympathetic.
“Fetterman could have stepped down and he didn’t. He doesn’t deserve sympathy,” tweeted Fox News’ Lisa Boothe.
“Just so we are all clear: that was Fetterman WITH weeks of prep and specialized computer assistance throughout. So what you just saw is the very, very best Fetterman can do. Which is terrifying,” former Trump advisor Stephen Miller said.
Author and commentator Nick Young added, “If Fetterman were a Republican, this debate would be an SNL cold open.”
Political strategist and commentator Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, meanwhile, lauded Fetterman for taking the stage in his condition.
“Fetterman’s aware he has auditory & processing issues as a result of stroke. He could’ve refused to debate like some candidates have. Instead, he went out there and let voters see his challenges and healing process. Support him or not, that takes courage, humility and honesty,” she tweeted.
Fetterman’s camp attempted to excuse his poor performance even before he got on stage.
On Monday, the campaign issued a memo warning the media to be prepared for “awkward pauses” and Fetterman “missing some words, and mushing other words together.”
After the debate, his team said in a statement they were “thrilled” with Fetterman’s performance.
“He did remarkably well tonight – especially when you consider that he’s still recovering from a stroke and was working off of delayed captions filled with errors,” they said.
Fetterman used a similar closed captioning system during an interview with NBC News’ Dasha Burns earlier this month. After the interview, Burns was accused by Fetterman’s own wife of being “ableist” after noting that “it did seem that [Fetterman] had a hard time understanding our conversation” without the assistance of subtitles.
Fetterman and Oz, 62, are seeking to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in a race that could decide the balance of power in the United States Senate.
The latest RealClearPolitics polling average showed Fetterman leading Oz by just 1.3 percentage points, down from a high spread of 8.7 percentage points in mid-August.
Oz’s support has surged among GOP voters in recent months, with the percentage of Republicans who say they will vote for the celebrity heart surgeon rising to 94% from 87% in September, a CBS News/YouGov survey found.