Expectations for John Fetterman debate performance lowered by media: Just needs to be ‘relatively coherent’


A CNN panelist and other media figures attempted to lower the bar for Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman, D., on Tuesday ahead of his debate with Dr. Mehmet Oz.

During “Inside Politics with John King,” CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson said that Democrats were smart to “lower expectations” for Fetterman, asserting that just having him be “relatively coherent” would be enough to portray his debate performance as a success. 

“Will Fetterman be nimble enough to go at [Oz] in a debate? Because that’s been a real question about whether his health issues make him unfit for office, right, that’s going to be part of the backdrop for this campaign,” Henderson said. “They are smart to lower expectations and say he’s not a great debater and will probably lose. Almost standing there and sounding relatively coherent will mean he’ll do well.” 

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Indeed, Fetterman’s campaign has also sought to dramatically lower expectations. Pointing to Fetterman’s past debate performances in a memo to the media, his campaign argued that “this isn’t John’s format. Look no further than the debates from the primary earlier this year.”

CNN political analyst Margaret Talev jumped in after Henderson, noting that the debate is Fetterman’s chance to go on offense after weeks of playing defense over his health and stances on crime. 

“This is his one night to put Oz back on the defensive,” she said. 

“And transparency over his health,” CNN political analyst Zolan Kanno-Youngs chimed in. 

TIME Magazine senior correspondent Charlotte Alter also attempted to temper expectations for Fetterman heading into the debate, posting a lengthy Twitter thread of points for readers to keep in mind. 

“Ahead of the Fetterman/Oz debate tonight, it’s worth remembering a couple things: 1) Fetterman has never been a good debater. Even before the stroke, he has always been a somewhat wooden debater (see: PA primary debate, pre-stroke.) He’s not Pete Buttigieg,” Alter tweeted. 

Alter continued on at length, claiming that Fetterman’s “vibe” was his ability to talk like a “normal person.” 

“…and normal people don’t usually speak in fluent paragraphs memorized ahead of time and crafted for maximum political impact. So debates have never been his strong suit,” she added. 

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She added that a televised debate is “playing on Oz’s turf,” describing Oz as a “natural” performer who thrives on television, and Fetterman as a candidate who thrives on social media and in person.

“Take one of the least-natural debaters in the Dem party, give him auditory processing issues and a tendency to flub words, and that’s Fetterman going into tonight. Up against a slick TV doc who has spent a decade in front of the camera. Gonna be an interesting night,” she added. 

A guest essay from The New York Times on the day of the debate also appeared to explain away possible verbal hiccups from Fetterman during the debate.

Author of a piece headlined “What Everyone Should Know About the Brain’s Ability to Heal,” neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor recounted at age 37 how she suffered a major hemorrhagic stroke that left her unable to talk, read, write or recall memories of her life. 

“Those of us who study the brain immediately recognize that Mr. Fetterman’s cognitive competence appears to be just fine,” Taylor claimed. “It may take a few months before Mr. Fetterman feels up to the scrutiny of the public and forgoes closed captioning, but the neuroplasticity of the brain is an ongoing process and will continue to repair and help him heal.”

She also expressed disappointment at the focus on whether Fetterman is well or fit for office, rather than marveling at his recovery, which she said included his ability to respond to questions “rapidly and appropriately.”

Fetterman will share the stage Tuesday with Oz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The race in the battleground state – where the latest public opinion polls indicate Oz has all but erased Fetterman’s lead – is one of several crucial races across the country that will likely determine if the Republicans win back the Senate majority.

Fetterman’s campaign, in a memo on the eve of the debate, noted that as requested, closed captioning will be provided to Fetterman during the one-hour showdown.

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“The captioning process may also lead to time delays and errors in the exchanges between the moderators and the candidates,” the Fetterman campaign cautioned. “In fact, because the captions are going to be typed out by human beings in real time, on live TV, some amount of human error in the transcription is inevitable, which may cause temporary miscommunications at times. It is impossible to control and unavoidable.”

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Fox News’ Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report. 

Reporters from TIME and CNN attempted to temper expectations for Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman ahead of his debate with Mehmet Oz on Tuesday.

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