ERIE, Dad. — Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the Pennsylvania Senate, returned to the campaign trail Friday night for his first major public event since suffering a stroke in mid-May.
Mr. Fetterman was in turn emotional and brash as he addressed an effusive crowd, acknowledging the seriousness of the health anxieties he faced, while also addressing his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the famous physician, slammed and promised to fight for “every province, every vote.”
“Tomorrow will be three months — three months ago my life could have ended,” said Mr Fetterman, speaking for about 11 minutes and then greeting some of those in attendance. At another point, his voice seemed to break as he added, “I’m so grateful — and I’m so lucky. So thank you for being here.”
The rally in Erie — in a swing county in what is arguably the nation’s ultimate swing state — was a key moment in a race that could determine control of the Senate. It was Mr. Fetterman’s first official personal campaign event of the general election, as he goes up against Dr. Oz, who peeped through the Republican primaries with the approval of former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Fetterman’s stroke occurred just 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.”
Several people who spoke to or heard him speak at private events described him as eager to return to the campaign trail, although some also said it was apparent when he reached for a word. He has acknowledged that challenge and it was sometimes obvious on Friday when he started a sentence or spoke hesitantly.
“Sometimes I’ll miss a word, or I can sometimes put two words together in a conversation, but that’s really the only problem, and it gets better and better every day,” Mr. Fetterman recently told KDKA-TV, the CBS-TV. transmitter in Pittsburgh.
But on the podium on Friday, Mr Fetterman also came across as energetic, and his comments at times 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 are many differences between me and Dr. Oz,” Mr. Fetterman said with a laugh, wondering how many mansions his opponent owned.
For the event, the line to enter the convention center snaked deep into the parking lot, drawing in both older voters — including at least two who said they voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 — and a young woman in a glittering sash, who said that she had chosen to spend her 19th birthday at his campaign rally. Several attendees of different ages mentioned abortion rights when discussing their vote in the Senate race, following the Supreme Court’s quashing of Roe v. Wade.
“To see it taken from my great-granddaughters, my granddaughters, my daughters at my age is so disturbing to my heart, that I am here for Roe v. Wade,” said Judy Pasold, 80, who thought Mr. Fetterman “very good” sounded. “That’s why it will be Democrat all the time. Probably. Because most Republicans have gone the other way, so far the other way.”
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Mr. Fetterman’s comments were light on the policy, though he nodded his support for issues such as abortion rights, raising the minimum wage and eliminating the filibuster.
Public opinion polls have shown that he has a strong lead over Dr. Oz, and he has far outperformed the Republican nominee in fundraising. However, external spending from both sides is expected to be significant, and many strategists expect a close-knit race in a closely divided state.
Despite his absence from the campaign trail, Mr. Fetterman and his team have urged Dr. Defining Oz as essentially a carpet shopper, making the Republican more comfortable in New Jersey—which had been his old primary residence—than Pennsylvania, where he says he now lives in suburban Philadelphia. During the event, it appeared that the focus on residency had broken through among 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 in consolidating its base after a bitter divisive and competitive primaries earlier this year, alarming Republicans nationals.
But he has tried to project a powerful presence by posting photos of dinners — he attended Capitol Diner in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Friday, his campaign said — and criticized Mr. Fetterman for his absence from the campaign trail.
“Dr. Mehmet Oz is relentless in campaigning in the Commonwealth, listening to and sharing the concerns of the people he meets, and standing up for the people of Pennsylvania,” said Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for Dr. Oz, in a statement.
He has unveiled a site that calls Mr. Fetterman a “basement bum,” and challenged his rival engage in debates. dr. Oz said Friday that he was committed to five.
“It’s time for Fetterman to appear,” Dr. oz wrote on Twitter. “Pennsylvanians deserve to hear from their candidates.”
Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for Mr. Fetterman, has not committed to any specific number of debates, but said Mr. Fetterman intended to work with Dr. Oz to debate.
Democrats in Pennsylvania would like Mr. Fetterman to return to making more public appearances. Mr Calvello said the “pace will pick up” as the candidate continues to raise funds and plans events such as meet-and-greets this month.
Mr. Fetterman opened his event by criticizing Dr. Oz mocked him and later challenged him to hold an event of similar size.
“Are we in Erie?” he asked. “Or did I fit 1,400 people in my basement?”
Mr Fetterman, who has pledged to campaign in areas often considered inhospitable to Democrats, also spent considerable time during his speech highlighting Erie’s political importance, which is deeply divided.
“If you can’t win Erie County,” he said, “you can’t win Pennsylvania.”