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John Fetterman’s debate showing left-wing Democratic insiders shaken but still hopeful

When a Democratic agent in Pennsylvania got a call Wednesday morning, his out-of-state clients wouldn’t talk about their own campaigns. They were asking about John Fetterman.

And in Pennsylvania Democratic circles, insiders and elected officials have raised concerns about Fetterman’s faltering performance in Tuesday’s high-stakes U.S. Senate debate, questioning choosing his campaign to participate, and in some cases, hoping the debate comes too late for serious damage to be felt, according to several operatives and elected Democrats, most of whom did not want to publicly criticize their candidate in the State of origin.

“I was getting text messages throughout the debate and certainly when he concluded Fetterman voters…saying, ‘wowsaid David Dix, a political consultant from Philadelphia who has worked on Democratic and Republican campaigns.

Since Fetterman has most often campaigned at large rallies where he gave stump speeches, Tuesday night was the first chance many voters had to see him for an extended and quick back-and-forth.

“If you hadn’t been to a rally, you hadn’t really seen it outside of the commercials,” Dix said.

In the lone debate in the crucial Pennsylvania Senate race, Fetterman at times struggled to answer questions clearly, bringing national attention to the campaign’s biggest stage. His demonstration only heightened anxiety among Democrats already nervous about tightening the polls as Fetterman tries to hold off Republican Mehmet Oz.

“I would have taken the leap. … I understand why they did it,” Jim Messina, a former Barack Obama campaign manager, said while on MSNBC with host Andrea Mitchell. “They wanted to get rid of that question and say, ‘Look, we did it. I thought the format was ridiculous and didn’t favor it. And I wouldn’t have accepted. »

READ MORE: Key takeaways from the Pennsylvania Senate debate between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz

On Wednesday, debate clips circulating on social media and cable news focused on Fetterman’s verbal slips and pauses, and the difficulties he sometimes faced responding to Oz’s attacks.

Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said he thought Fetterman’s campaign team probably thought it would have gone better.

“Some voters might have honest questions about whether John can handle the job. I think it can, because people need to remember that you get better after a stroke. Hardly anyone does it overnight,” he said.

Fetterman, according to the Nexstar debate host, only did one prep session with the station’s closed captioning after asking and being given the opportunity to do two.

Other Democrats said they thought Fetterman offered a vision that will appeal to voters and pointed to an Oz response on abortion that they are already turning into publicity.

It’s unclear how well Fetterman’s debate performance will sink in to voters on the home stretch or whether they’ll find his very public recovery admirable or concerning. But the result will have national repercussions: it could decide the control of the Senate currently divided into equal parts.

Republicans have said Fetterman’s performance could deter undecided voters from supporting the Democrat in a race that is essentially tied with less than two weeks until Election Day on Nov. 8.

“Debates don’t matter until they do, and last night counted,” said Peter Towey, a Republican agent from Pennsylvania.

“Fetterman has failed to defend his hardline policies on issues such as crime and energy,” he said. “At the same time, he lost the chance to reassure voters who were on the fence that he’s ready for the job.”

(In one of the most defining moments of the night, for example, Fetterman was asked about his stated support for fracking, given past comments strongly opposing it. He repeated three times that he supported fracking without explanation.)

Matt Beynon, a Republican operative who worked for former Sen. Rick Santorum, expressed sympathy for Fetterman but predicted the debate will leave voters wondering if he can handle such a big job.

“Being a United States Senator is an 18-hour, 7-day-a-week job representing 13 million people for the next six years, and last night raised serious questions about his ability to do the job,” said Beynon.

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) disagreed.

“I know this job well,” Casey told MSNBC. “John is ready now to be an effective senator.”

He also said Fetterman had better answers on issues that voters care about, like retirement, health care and abortion rights.

Oz said abortion laws should be left to the states, offering an answer that Democrats hope can save the night for them: “I want women, doctors, local political leaders to leave the democracy that has always allowed our nation to thrive for putting the best ideas forward.”

Fetterman immediately launched ads on Wednesday emphasizing the intervention of ‘local politicians’ and aimed at connecting Oz to State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who has called for a complete ban on abortion and is running for office. of governor.

READ MORE: Mehmet Oz says local politicians should have a say in abortion. Democrats see it as an opportunity.

“If I was the Fetterman campaign, I’d dump every penny I had on TV with that quote, because it’s just irrelevant,” Messina said.

Five months into his recovery from his May stroke, Fetterman pledged Tuesday night to stand up for “the union way of life,” raise the minimum wage and fight for abortion rights. He called his health issues “the elephant in the room”, but described his situation as relating to anyone who has ever “been knocked down and needs to get back up”.

Pressed by a moderator at one point to release his full medical records, Fetterman argued that his large rallies and participation in the debate showed his transparency. He concluded, “My doctor thinks I am fit to serve. And that’s what I believe to be where I stand.

Medical experts have said that speech and hearing problems are common after stroke and are not linked to cognitive issues. Fetterman’s doctor wrote a letter this month saying the lieutenant governor had no work restrictions and “spoke intelligently with no cognitive deficits.”

Fetterman acknowledged difficulties with his speech and the processing of spoken words. He used closed captioning on Tuesday to follow questions and was able to navigate and respond to topics.

And he did other media events and interviews where he was much more fluid and fluid. People recovering from stroke and other health issues often have better days than others, setbacks mixed with improvements.

“Putting a timer on someone adds pressure to an already hard-working system,” Brooke Hatfield, a speech pathologist from Maryland, told the AP. “Ultimately, it’s important to remember that changes in communication are different from changes in intelligence, reasoning, and other cognitive skills.”

Democrats argued that Fetterman showed courage to stand up under the bright lights while recovering, knowing he had never been a strong debater even before his stroke.

“John showed courage,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, a former rival of Fetterman in the Democratic primary. “He introduced himself. He gave everything. He clarified his positions. For the average voter, their actions are more important than their words.

Arguing that Fetterman still knows politics, Democratic strategist Mustafa Rashed said, “If it was a take-home trial, he probably would have nailed it.”

READ MORE: John Fetterman’s performance was at center of lonely Pennsylvania Senate debate against Mehmet Oz

While Fetterman’s performance might worry some insiders, several other Democrats said they didn’t expect a debate at this late stage to significantly shift the votes.

“The undecided voters have already had plenty of time to wonder if he’s capable,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist from western Pennsylvania. “It will depend on what issues they are interested in, and I still think Fetterman wins.”

But other Democrats, while agreeing few undecided voters were likely watching, said the Fetterman clips could live on in digital and TV ads long after Tuesday.

Oz, for his part, seemed content to let the media coverage bolster Fetterman’s rough night. He spoke Wednesday afternoon at an office of the Pennsylvania State Trooper Association in Harrisburg, alongside former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity, focusing on crime and public safety.

Fetterman returned to Pittsburgh for a more comfortable stopover: a rally with musician Dave Mathews.

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