Above his first in-person public campaign event, there was a single question: how the lingering effects stroke hinders his ability to run a winning campaign?
Fetterman remained on stage at a lakeside convention center unattended for about 15 minutes as he was introduced, then made brief remarks in front of about 1,300 supporters. His tone, sometimes swaggering and sometimes self-deprecating and grateful, sounded like the victory speech he would have delivered in his May primary. Instead, he was too ill to attend his election night.
He wiped his forehead occasionally on stage, and his bald head glistened with sweat. But his syntax, which he recognized as sometimes hesitant, was largely fluid and only a few words were missing. He was sometimes aided by the cheering crowd as he stopped in mid-sentence.
Democrats see the race here as one of the most promising Senate resumption opportunities for the upcoming midterm elections and a key to retaining power in the chamber. Republicans are increasingly gloomy about their chances here as their candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, has vastly underperformed.
But Fetterman’s health could scramble the race. Fetterman’s return to the campaign trail came three days before Pennsylvania’s Aug. 15 deadline to replace a candidate on the ballot.
Fetterman has mentioned his stroke several times, crediting his wife Gisele with recognizing the signs of a health problem as they campaigned together in mid-May and pushing him to surrender to the hospital.
Fetterman, currently lieutenant governor, checked into a Pennsylvania hospital on May 13. He remained hospitalized during the May 17 Democratic primary, which he won by a landslide. Doctors cleared him to return home on May 22.
“After everything he’s been through, I know he can really take on anything,” said Gisele Fetterman, who thanked the crowd for welcoming her husband to the campaign trail.
A campaign known for its gimmicks and clever marketing didn’t disappoint. When Fetterman took the stage at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, fans began tossing around their Fetterman-branded “terrible towels.” The mustard-colored cloths with black writing were new material at the rally and are similar to the swag fans wave at Pittsburgh Steelers games.
Fetterman joined in by hoisting one above his head, but also used it to wipe the sweat from his brow.
Behind the stage hung a banner that read, “EVERY COUNTY, EVERY VOTE,” a slogan used since the primary and a direct reminder of the retail politics that singled out Fetterman during a bruising primary campaign.
Fetterman is planning other smaller events in the coming weeks, campaign spokesman Joe Calvello said, though no schedule has been released.
Since his stroke, Fetterman has largely retired from the campaign trail, although he has posted occasional videos and made a few virtual appearances with campaign staff and supporters..
Fetterman appeared at a fundraiser led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) at a Philadelphia home on Tuesday, one of five fundraisers which he has attended in person since the stroke.
Fetterman has done a few interviews with local media since the stroke and did a TV interview with KDKA-TVs Jon Delano on Thursday night.
“I will sometimes miss a word or I can mix up two words sometimes in a conversation,” Fetterman said in that interview. “But that’s really the only problem and it’s getting better every day.”
Major medical issues do not necessarily mean the end of a campaign. Indeed, in the 2020 presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)’s standing in the polls actually improved after he was sidelined with a heart attack.
“What we had to do was demonstrate that Bernie was up to the task of being president,” said Jeff Weaver, who was a top adviser to Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. went through a pretty rigorous schedule pretty quickly,” Weaver said.
Weaver’s advice to Fetterman’s campaign: “You just want to hang out and hang out among people, whenever possible, go back to your old routine.”
On Friday, Oz challenged Fetterman in a series of at least five general election debates hosted by media outlets across the state, with the first scheduled for early September.
The Glove of Oz, strategists said, was designed to draw attention to Fetterman’s health: How will he perform on a debate stage?
“Dr. Oz believes debates are a crucial part of the democratic process and he looks forward to sharing his vision for Pennsylvania,” Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said. “Now that Fetterman has returned to the campaign campaign after a 90-day hiatus, Pennsylvanians deserve to know if he will engage in real debate or go back to hiding in his basement.”
Fetterman’s campaign declined to say whether he would participate in those exchanges. “Today is about John, and it’s not our job to boost Dr. Oz’s struggling campaign,” Calvello said.
Jenna M. Tosto, clinical specialist in neurological physical therapy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said it’s entirely possible that a stroke survivor could join a debate months after falling ill. .
Tosto said the lingering effects of a stroke can include speech problems, reduced stamina, physical weakness, decreased coordination and balance. “It completely depends on what part of the brain is affected,” Tosto said.
For its official campaign return, Fetterman’s campaign chose the aptly named Bayfront Convention Center, a soaring building with sweeping views of Lake Erie.
“Let me tell you, if you can’t win Erie County, you can’t win Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. The county, which makes up the northwest corner of the state, opted for Donald Trump in 2016 by about 2,000 votes. Four years later, Joe Biden prevailed here by a margin of around 1,400 votes.
Fetterman’s path to victory would require winning blue parts of the state, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but also flattening the margins in some of the more rural areas where Democrats have bled voters in recent years.
Although Fetterman promised an issue-based campaign that he said would be positive, he also unleashed a torrent of criticism for his Republican opponent. He joked about the wealth of Oz and portrayed him as a baggage handler who should be sent back to New Jersey., where the famous doctor has long resided.
“Who would have thought – who would have ever thought – that I would be – the normal, the normal in the race,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman was dressed in his unofficial uniform, including a black hoodie and jeans. He rolled up the sleeves revealing his tattooed arms.
Prior to the event, volunteers gathered outside the lakeside building and posed with a life-size cutout of the 6-foot-8 Fetterman.
Todd Davis, 66, a retired pastor, said he was “concerned” about Fetterman’s health and suspects it is worse than the campaign suggests. But that did little to dampen his support, saying he just hopes he stays healthy enough to win and take office.
Other donors have downplayed his health problems. Duane Churchill, 73, of Fairview, Pennsylvania, said he had similarly serious health issues and made a full recovery, which reassured him that Fetterman could do the same.
He noted that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who he says was his favorite president, used a wheelchair and Texas Governor Greg Abbott did too. “The infirmity is no longer what it used to be.”