ERIE, PA-Bookended by two large American flags spread across the wall behind him, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman walked on to the podium Friday night for his first rally of his 2022 Senate bid-and his first public campaign stop since suffering a stroke in May.
But amid his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz's attacks on his absence from the trail-and insistence that Fetterman's been hiding in a basement for the summer months during his stroke recovery-Fetterman didn't shy away from the subject while speaking to the crowd Friday night.
In fact, he led with it.
Introduced by his wife, Gisele, who had cheering fans of her own, she called him a "stroke survivor" and thanked the crowd for welcoming her husband back to the trail. Hardly missing a beat, Fetterman stepped up to the microphone and tackled Oz's line of rhetoric head on.
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"Are we in Erie, or have I fit 1,400 people in my basement?" he quipped. According to the campaign, the final attendance count was 1,355.
The Senate hopeful went on to recap his stroke experience, growing visibly emotional when retelling the story of his wife catching wind of his stroke before it was too late. "Gisele saved my life," he said, adding that he was grateful it happened near a well-equipped health care facility, in an apparent touchstone-tap for his position on approving quality health-care access throughout the nation.
"I'm just so grateful. And I'm so lucky. So thank you for being here tonight," he said.
Fetterman's comeback to the campaign trail marks a significant turning point in the race. Forecasted to be one of the most competitive races this cycle, Democrats need every advantage they can get in Pennsylvania, including valuable face time with voters. Pennsylvania is also being targeted by national Democrats as one of their top pickup opportunities-potentially adding to their numbers in the Senate, or simply preventing Democrats from losing the majority.
Although Fetterman faced some pushback for not being totally transparent about the nature of his stroke from the start, there didn't seem to be any love lost with his base on Friday.
"He's been extremely open and forthcoming… Stuff happens to human bodies. Stuff has happened to both of us and we're walking in here," Jane Asher, an Erie resident, told The Daily Beast while gesturing to her partner.
The crowd, which lined up down the block for entry, was filled with Fetterman's black-and-white campaign signs on cardstock material. Campaign staff supplied rally-goers with yellow-and-black rags printed with the name "Fetterman" to wave in the air-like the Pittsburgh Steelers' signature "Terrible Towels." Classic rock blasted over the speakers into the Bayfront Convention Center-a location just off the cusp of Lake Erie.
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Looking exactly as he did when he left the campaign trial three months ago, Fetterman wore his signature hoodie and baggy bottoms.
The Democratic Senate hopeful didn't mince words in outlining why Erie County was his choice for his very first campaign rally of the Senate cycle. A longtime political bellwether for Pennsylvania, Erie is an encapsulation of everything Fetterman's campaign is hoping to highlight this cycle.
It's a blue-collar, working class part of the state that doesn't vote Democrat by default. It fits right into his model of "every county, every vote"-a catchphrase he's used to argue that Democrats should target votes in deep-red areas just as much as they do in their metropolitan safe havens.
"If you can't win Erie County, you can't win Pennsylvania," Fetterman told the crowd.
Only spending about 10 minutes on stage before going to shake hands and take selfies, Fetterman had another significant topic on the agenda: Oz.
Much like his Twitter feed, which has turned into a steady stream of shitposting on the Republican hopeful, Fetterman dished out zingy one-liners on the television doctor and asking the crowd, "Do you think Dr. Oz could fill a room like this?"
The crowd answered resoundingly by shouting "No."
Asked for comment, Oz's campaign said 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."
"Meanwhile, 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. Pennsylvanians deserve answers now from Fetterman. It's been far too long," said Brittany Yanick, Oz's communications director.
Fetterman also called out the press, suggesting they should do a fact-check on how many mansions Oz owns. (It's difficult to discern exactly how many mansions Oz owns, but Oz did report $100 million in assets in his campaign filing.)
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John Whaley, another Erie resident, told The Daily Beast he's voting for Fetterman versus simply voting against Oz. But Whaley added that he suspects some people are voting "just to keep Oz out."
"And MAGA maniacs, and ultra MAGA," Whaley added, "we don't need any of that."
Mike Kurutz, another Erie Democrat, told The Daily Beast he thinks politics doesn't need another "entertainer," questioning if someone like Carrot Top could come next.
The Oz campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Fetterman's appearance Friday night-Fetterman also did not take questions from reporters during the event.
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