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Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz face off in their first debate


The contest for Pennsylvania's open seat in the U.S. Senate is among the closest and most closely watched in the country. It features two very high-profile candidates - Republican Mehmet Oz, better known as the celebrity TV doctor, and Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke back in May and only recently resumed a full campaign schedule. Tomorrow, they will hold their only debate. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: John Fetterman's task, as the campaign enters its final weeks, is twofold. He must convince voters to support him to help Democrats hang onto their razor-thin majority in the Senate. On top of that, he needs to demonstrate that his recovery from a stroke five months ago is on track and that he's up to the job he's running for. You'll find him doing both on the campaign trail.




FETTERMAN: This is unbelievable on a Friday night.

GONYEA: He still wears his trademark black hoodie and baggy shorts. And do I need to remind you that he's 6-foot-8, shaved head, arms full of tattoos? Fetterman, who is currently Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor and a former small-town mayor, is much thinner than he was pre-stroke. And you can tell he's more careful, less gregarious. He talks about what he calls the elephant in the room.


FETTERMAN: The only lingering issues, if you want to call that, is sometimes I miss words. Yeah, sometimes I might - it's a true. It's a true.


FETTERMAN: And sometimes I might mush words together that really doesn't exist, you know?

GONYEA: But mostly, he does seem like any candidate giving a basic stump speech. This one lasted more than 20 minutes. Molly Leverknight, a hospitality worker who's here with her mom, was watching Fetterman closely as he spoke.

MOLLY LEVERKNIGHT: Yeah, I mean, I don't need him swinging off the rafters. I think he was fine. I think he was honest. He says, I get words confused. I think he was honest and says, you know, I might miss something here and there, but I have no problem with that.

GONYEA: Just days ago, Fetterman's doctor released a statement saying he's recovering well and has no work restrictions. He describes Fetterman as exhibiting, quote, "symptoms of an auditory processing disorder." So as he recovers, Fetterman uses a computer screen that shows him subtitles during interviews to help with what can seem like difficulty hearing. He'll use that same technology during the debate. Both candidates are spending heavily on TV. Oz, who's been endorsed by Donald Trump and who ran as a conservative in the primaries, now portrays himself as a moderate as he attacks Fetterman on crime and inflation.


MEHMET OZ: John Fetterman would raise everyone's taxes, making inflation that much worse. We need more balance and less extremism in Washington. I'm not a politician. I'm a heart surgeon.

GONYEA: Fetterman, meanwhile, is hitting us on reproductive rights, saying Oz will vote against access to safe and legal abortion. In this new ad, Fetterman gets help from former President Obama.


BARACK OBAMA: When the fate of our democracy and a woman's right to choose are on the line, I know John will fight for Pennsylvanians.

GONYEA: There is also a marked difference in how these candidates campaign. Fetterman, even as he recovers from a stroke, publicizes rallies in advance. With Oz, it's a much more guarded approach. Oz events are more like this one, with friendly media. Here he is in York, Pa., with Sean Hannity on Fox News, where Oz makes his pitch to moderate Democrats and suburban voters.


OZ: We believe in the grit of Americans. We believe in America. That is the fundamental difference between me and the far-left radical elements of the Democratic Party. And I think, Sean, it's not...

GONYEA: Fetterman, meanwhile, continues to hammer away at Oz as a fraud, as a doctor who sold cure-all supplements on TV, as a candidate who only established residency in Pennsylvania to run for office.


FETTERMAN: Send Dr. Oz back to New Jersey...


FETTERMAN: ...And send me to D.C. Thank you.

GONYEA: Fetterman and Oz will debate Tuesday evening in Harrisburg. Fetterman has consistently led in polls, but his once-sizable advantage has narrowed considerably. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.