ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman is expected to open up about his personal health challenges as he officially returns to the campaign trail Friday, more than 90 days after the Democrat suffered a stroke that threatened his life and political prospects in one of the nation's premier Senate contests.
Fetterman will address voters Friday evening in Erie County, a politically competitive region in the state's northwestern corner. The appearance marks the 52-year-old lieutenant governor's only scheduled rally this month, although he's expected to appear at a handful of lower-profile events as he gradually ramps up his public schedule, according to campaign spokesman Joe Calvello.
Fetterman, who was hospitalized for several days after the May health scare, is expected to offer emotional remarks about his experience. He said in June that he almost died.
"He'll talk about how blessed he is to be back," Calvello said. "It'll be somewhat emotional - a little raw about what he went through, how grateful he is to be campaigning again."
Fetterman's return marks a significant development in the race to fill retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's seat. The Pennsylvania contest offers Democrats perhaps their best pickup opportunity nationally as the two parties battle for Senate control in the November midterm elections. The chamber is now split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the narrowest of majorities with her tie-breaking vote.
Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz, a celebrity heart surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has railed against Fetterman's prolonged public absence throughout the summer.
Oz posted a fake "Have You Seen This Person?" poster online last month. He needled Fetterman again Wednesday on social media. "It has been 90 DAYS since Fetterman's last public campaign event," Oz tweeted. "Pennsylvanians deserve answers."
Fetterman's physical appearance is a central element of his nontraditional political brand.
At 6 feet, 9 inches, he sports a shaved head and tattooed arms, while usually wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. He's also an unapologetic progressive with a working-class background who supports legalizing marijuana, abolishing the Senate filibuster and establishing a national government health insurance program for everyone - "Medicare for all" in progressives' campaign jargon.
Fetterman's health has been a dominant issue in the Senate contest since the days before the May 17 primary, when his campaign revealed he had a stroke. He required surgery to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator, and later disclosed that he also had a serious heart condition.
His doctor offered a blunt letter in early June detailing Fetterman's decision not to take prescribed medication or see a doctor for several years after a 2017 health scare.
"If he does what I've told him, and I do believe that he is taking his recovery and his health very seriously this time, he should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem," Dr. Ramesh Chandra wrote.
Fetterman is now taking his medication as prescribed, eating a low-sodium diet and walking 3 to 5 miles most days, Calvello said: "He's following the doctor's orders."
Voters may not detect any lingering symptoms, but he has mild speech and hearing issues.
"He'll miss a word here or there when he's speaking sometimes, or maybe in a crowded room he'll miss hearing a word," Calvello said. "Besides that, he's rock solid."
The high-profile Senate contest has been playing out on television and social media despite his extended absence.
Fetterman, who has dominated Oz in fundraising, has been running television ads promoting his candidacy for months. The Democrat has also drawn millions of views from creative social media posts, including one featuring a character from the infamous MTV show "Jersey Shore" telling Oz to come home. Oz is a former New Jersey resident, and it has been a major issue throughout the campaign.
Fetterman insisted he was well enough to win the Senate contest in a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I would never be in this if we were not absolutely, 100% able to run fully and to win - and we believe that we are," Fetterman told the newspaper.