Mehmet Oz formally challenged John Fetterman to five Pennsylvania Senate debates Friday, an opening salvo designed to help the Republican catch the Democratic frontrunner and indirectly highlight his health as he recovers from a stroke.
Oz, the celebrity TV doctor, made sure to time his debate demand to coincide with Fetterman's first public rally since he was debilitated by a stroke May 15, two days before the state's primary. Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor, was hospitalized for days and temporarily lost his ability to speak fluidly.
Since then, Fetterman has maintained a lead in the polls, outspending Oz on TV and earning favorable media coverage for his campaign's clever use of social media, at one point featuring "Jersey Shore" reality TV star Snooki to mock Oz's out-of-state roots. Fetterman's campaign also slowly reintroduced the candidate to his followers by releasing highly edited videos with multiple cuts, which Republicans said purposefully disguised the speech problems Fetterman has acknowledged he developed as a result of the stroke.
Fetterman's campaign wouldn't say how many debates he will commit to and dismissed Oz's gambit as a sign of desperation.
While that's a typical response for a frontrunner, the questions about Fetterman's health issues will complicate his ability to dismiss Oz's challenge for multiple debates, said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.
"There is a degree of pressure for Fetterman to demonstrate that he's ready to go. It doesn't mean he has to agree with everything. But he's going to have to debate Oz this fall," Borick said. "I don't think it's highly salient in this campaign but given Fetterman's health situation he has to show he's capable of occupying this role."
Friday's event will be the first open-press public event where voters and reporters will have an opportunity to assess his recovery.
A heart surgeon, Oz has been careful to not directly question or criticize Fetterman's health. Instead, his campaign has increasingly drawn attention to Fetterman's absence from the campaign trail during his recovery, launching a fetterman basement on social media. Oz's campaign emphasized that message in its statement calling for more debates.
"John Fetterman has hidden from reporters and the public for the last few months because he doesn't want to talk about his radical policy positions like releasing one-third of Pennsylvania's convicted criminals on our streets, signing a pledge to ban fracking, and wanting to spend trillions more than Biden which would add more to inflation," Brittany Yanick, Oz's spokeswoman said.
"Now that Fetterman has returned to the campaign trail after a 90-day break, Pennsylvanians deserve to know whether he will engage in real debates or go back into hiding in his basement," she added.
In response to questions from NBC News, Fetterman campaign strategist Rebecca Katz dismissed the Oz campaign's debate demand as "an obvious and pathetic attempt to change the subject during yet another bad week."
"John is up for debating Oz - but we're not going to do this on Oz's terms. A millionaire celebrity like Dr. Oz is probably used to pushing people around and getting his own way, but he's not going to be able to bully John Fetterman," Katz said in an email.
Katz noted that the Democratic lieutenant governor "had a stroke 3 months ago, and the other is a professional television personality, so our eyes are wide open about whose strengths this plays to." She said it's "no surprise he's eager for as many debates as possible" because he's been "lying to people on television" professionally for 20 years.
Fetterman's campaign said he has held three private fundraisers recently - one on July 21 in Philadelphia, another on Aug. 9 in Philadelphia and one on Aug. 10 in Camp Hill.
Borick, the Pennsylvania pollster, pointed out that Fetterman appeared uncomfortable at his Democratic primary debates even before he suffered a stroke.
Adding pressure to Fetterman as he recovers: four of the five debates Oz wants would require the candidates to stand for an hour. Five debates is a number outside the norm for Pennsylvania senate races. In 2018, the general election senate candidates had two debates, and there were two debates in 2016.
Republicans have grown increasingly worried with the state of Oz's campaign and they've grown correspondingly more agitated with Fetterman. Capturing that sense of frustration, former Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., mocked Fetterman's speech in one of the Democrat's Twitter videos mocking Oz's residency.
"He can barely talk, & has barely left his house for 2 months," Costello wrote, linking to another conservative account that called Fetterman's video "embarrassing."
The five debates Oz has agreed to are as follows:
• KDKA Pittsburgh (September 6)
• WFMZ and Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce (September 9)
• Nexstar (October 5)
• FOX 29 Philadelphia, in partnership with Spotlight PA
• WGAL NBC Harrisburg