ERIE, Pa. — John Fetterman continued to gingerly return to the campaign trail on Friday, with the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic nominee holding a rally in the northwestern corner of the state, his first public event since suffering a stroke in mid-May.
More than 1,000 people lined up at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie to see the Democrat who grew visibly emotional when he said he nearly died three months ago.
“My life could have ended. It’s the truth. But I’m so grateful to be here tonight,” said Fetterman, thanking his wife, who noticed the signs of his stroke in time to get him to the hospital. “Gisele saved my life.”
Fetterman’s appearance on Friday was closely watched by leaders and strategists in both parties. The Pennsylvania contest between Fetterman and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz is widely seen as the best chance in the country for Democrats to flip a seat in the Senate. For the GOP, holding onto the seat now occupied by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is critical to winning back the majority.
Fetterman sought to cut the tension at the rally by opening his speech with a sarcastic line about his opponent’s attacks. Oz has criticized Fetterman for not appearing in public since his stroke, and on Thursday put out a press release that read, “91 Days Since Fetterman Left His Basement.”
“Wait, are we in Erie?” said Fetterman, joking about having “1,400 people in my basement.”
Fetterman, wearing his trademark black Carhartt hoodie, assailed Oz at the rally as a wealthy carpetbagger. He also sought to play up his Pennsylvania roots, with his staff handing out yellow, Fetterman-branded towels inspired by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Terrible Towel.” He stood in front of a sign onstage that read “Every County Every Vote,” his campaign’s motto.
Fetterman has made Oz’s New Jersey ties a major theme of his Senate bid. Even as he was sidelined as he recovered from a stroke, Fetterman received positive headlines for trolling Oz on social media, including by enlisting New Jersey reality TV star Snooki to record a video saying “Jersey will not forget you.” Oz lived in New Jersey for decades until recently, though he attended school and got married in Pennsylvania.
“He’s a New Jersey resident. He doesn’t live here,” said Fetterman. “He’s not about us. He doesn’t care about us.”
In a statement, Brittany Yanick, Oz’s communications director, said “John Fetterman refuses to be honest with Pennsylvanians or the press about his radical policies and his history of being a no-show for the commonwealth.” According to Oz’s team, the Republican has held more than 140 campaign-related events since June.
“Dr. Mehmet Oz is campaigning across the commonwealth, listening and sharing concerns of the people he meets, and showing up for Pennsylvanians unlike John Fetterman,” said Yanick. “Pennsylvanians deserve answers now from Fetterman. It’s been far too long.”
On Friday, Fetterman appeared physically healthy and mostly talked without any issues. At times, however, his speech was somewhat halted.
In interviews with reporters, Fetterman has said that he is physically and mentally able to withstand the rigors of a Senate campaign, and his doctor has said he should be able to serve as long as follows his orders. But Fetterman has acknowledged that he sometimes trips over his words and has trouble hearing as he continues to recover.
Fetterman spoke for 10 minutes at the rally and did not take any questions from the news media. He has only done two interviews with reporters since his stroke.
By holding the event on Friday evening in Erie, Fetterman was able to campaign in one of the state’s key bellwether counties — and also make his re-introduction to voters at a time and place where news coverage is less high-wattage than it would be in a bigger city during the week.
“The reason he’s going to Erie is cause it’s Erie — as off Broadway as you can get in Pa.,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant, before the event. “So if he flops it’ll be in the state’s smallest media market.”
Fetterman said on Friday that carrying Erie is key to his campaign’s success: “If you can’t win Erie County, you can’t win Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman has been inching back onto the campaign trail since last month, when he traveled to the Philadelphia area to attend three private fundraisers. He has gone to two additional in-person big-money events since then.
Despite his absence from the trail, Fetterman has led Oz in both polling and fundraising. A recent Fox News survey found him ahead of Oz by 11 percentage points.
Fetterman boasted about the polling, adding that he would campaign like he was behind regardless.
“Have you seen some of the polls? Some of them seven, eight, nine, ten, even up 15 points” he said. “We are going to always run like we’re always down by five points.”
Fetterman reiterated his campaign promise to be the “51st vote” for the Democratic agenda and eliminate the filibuster to “get some stuff done for America.”
Oz sought to keep the pressure on Fetterman on Friday by calling for him to agree to five debates hours before his rally. Fetterman’s campaign dismissed the plea as “an obvious and pathetic attempt to change the subject.” Fetterman’s aides said he would debate, but did not provide specifics.
According to Fetterman’s staff, nearly 1,400 people attended the event Friday.
“Do you think Dr. Oz can fill a room like this?” asked Fetterman at the rally, who said that he received three times as many votes in Erie County than Oz.