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Race for Pennsylvania Senate seat is a bare-knuckle battle

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Democrat John Fetterman (left) is in a political slugfest with Republican Mehmet Oz for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania./AFP
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Nov 03, 2022 - 07:25 AM

WASHINGTON — One rose to prominence as a TV show host, the other is recognizable by his imposing stature: The candidates in Pennsylvania’s US Senate seat battle are almost as unforgettable as the race is consequential.

Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman are facing off in a race that could prove decisive not only for control of the upper chamber but also for the outcome of the rest of President Joe Biden’s term.

A heart surgeon who became a TV personality before entering politics, “Dr. Oz,” as he is widely known, enjoys the enthusiastic support of ex-US president Donald Trump.

“Brilliant and well-known,” he “will never let you down,” said Trump, a former reality TV star himself.

Fetterman, an imposing 6-foot-8 (2.03 meters) in height, is lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, a key state that can swing the elections.

He carries the hopes of the Democratic camp, and is this “great guy” with “integrity,” in Biden’s words. “We need John badly.”

A once-wide gap between the two candidates favored the Democrat, but the race has tightened in recent weeks. In May, Fetterman, 53, suffered a stroke that forced him to scale back.

The two men, who crossed swords last week in their only televised debate, have clashed frequently in recent months on social media, using dagger-sharp quips and memes to mock and troll each other.

Medical star 

To explain his entry into politics, the 62-year-old Oz spins a medical metaphor. “Today, America’s heartbeat is in a code red in need of a defibrillator to shock it back to life,” he says on his website.

Fetterman portrays Oz as a wealthy outsider from New Jersey, where he lived in mansions until recently, who is out of touch with the working class of Pennsylvania.

“I’ve got green bananas that have been in Pennsylvania longer than Dr. Oz lol,” Fetterman tweeted.

Although a supporter of the very divisive Trump, Oz says he brings “civility and balance.” He also says he supports America’s “energy independence” and wants to “fix” the health care system.

While Fetterman defends the “non-negotiable” right to abortion, Oz believes that this explosive issue should be played out between “women, doctors (and) local political leaders.”

In the 2000s, his career was launched by Oprah Winfrey, the talk show queen who invited him on as an expert. From 2009 to early 2022, he had his own program, “The Dr. Oz Show,” which made him a celebrity and affable expert quick to offer anti-aging and weight-loss advice.

The son of Turkish immigrants, Oz has been married for 37 years, is the father of four children, and earlier this year won a coveted star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But his health recommendations, sometimes described as “magic” or “miracle,” have earned him criticism from fellow medical doctors, who say he has promoted ineffective or potentially dangerous treatments and dietary supplements, including for Covid.

‘Coolest’ mayor 

Voters in Braddock, a former industrial town near Pittsburgh that fell on hard times with the decline of the steel industry, elected Fetterman their mayor in 2006, and he served in the post until 2019.

A Pennsylvania native, Fetterman’s identity with the town is obvious to all: Its zip code is tattooed on his arm.

Once called the “coolest” mayor in America, Fetterman, who shaves his head and often wears hoodies, tried to revive the town with youth programs and green spaces.

He fosters an image as a  man of the people even though he grew up in an affluent family and has a master’s degree from Harvard University.

The Oz campaign points out that Fetterman’s parents helped him financially until he was 49 years old – his salary as mayor was $150 a month – even after he married and had three children.

For his part, Fetterman accuses the wealthy Oz of spending lavishly to “buy” the Senate seat.

Fetterman claims to have tackled crime during his tenure in Braddock, boasting that the town passed “five and a half years without a gun death.” Oz counters that Fetterman is soft on crime — a Republican leitmotif — and wants to “let murderers out of jail.”

Fetterman blames “corporate greed” for stoking inflation, and says he wants a fairer tax code to keep big business from “scamming the system.” He supports universal health coverage and the legalization of cannabis.

His campaign has been hampered by the stroke he had earlier this year and questions about his abilities, especially after television interviews in which he used a teleprompter to read the questions he was asked because of auditory problems.

“If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke,” an aide to Oz said in a biting statement.

That came after Fetterman had mocked Oz for using the French word “crudites” in a television ad about inflation, which made the Republican seem out of touch with the more vernacular “veggie trays.” It was a tit-for-tat exchange typical of the bare-knuckle tone of the race.

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