By Eva McKend, Dan Merica and Rachel Janfaza, CNN
Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman returned to the campaign trail Friday night at a packed rally in Erie, three months after suffering a stroke that made him less visible in the state but hasn’t appeared to dull his momentum.
“Three months ago, my life could have ended but I’m so grateful to be here tonight as well,” Fetterman said, thanking the crowd and his wife, Gisele, for their support.
“Gisele saved my life,” he added.
Fetterman, a press spokesperson said, did not prepare remarks in advance of the rally. His return to the trail marked a significant step for the candidate, who has only headlined a fundraiser and informal campaign gatherings while recovering from the stroke, which happened just days before the commonwealth’s Democratic primary.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, didn’t spend a lot of time outlining his vision for the state or his policy goals during the roughly 11-minute address, beyond telling his supporters they would not have to guess his position on key issues like raising the federal minimum wage, protecting access to reproductive care, supporting unions and eliminating the filibuster. But he did take a few jabs at Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz, saying, “There are a lot of differences between me and Dr. Oz. Who would have ever thought I’d be the normal one?”
“He doesn’t live here. He’s not about us. He doesn’t care about us,” he later said.
At times, Fetterman’s voice appeared to trail at the end of a thought. In an interview with CNN affiliate KDKA Thursday night, he acknowledged he’s had some lingering issues from the stroke, including auditory processing problems. “I’ll miss a word sometimes, or I might push two words together sometimes in a conversation, but that’s really the only issue and it’s getting better and better every day,” he said.
Fetterman handily won the primary and has spent the ensuing months on his recovery as he looks toward the general election against Oz.
The Pennsylvania Senate race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey represents Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat in the evenly divided Senate during what is expected to be a trying midterm election for President Joe Biden’s party.
Erie is a strategic spot for the Democratic candidate — Erie County voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then switched to Donald Trump in 2016 before swinging back to Democrats in 2020 by narrowly backing Biden. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, with Fetterman as his running mate, carried the county by more than 20 points in 2018.
“If you can’t win Erie County, you can’t win Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said Friday to loud applause.
A long line of voters had gathered outside of the Bayfront Convention Center with an air of excitement before the candidate took the stage, eager to hear the Democrat speak.
Bonnie Casane, a resident of Erie who described herself as a “staunch supporter of Fetterman,” told CNN she was previously an independent but re-registered as a Democrat to vote for Fetterman in the May primary election: “Fetterman was the party to switch to, so I switched to the Democratic Party.”
“He’s for Pennsylvania, he’s not a politician. He doesn’t have an agenda, and I think that his agenda is to better Pennsylvania,” Casane said, adding that legalizing marijuana, part of Fetterman’s platform, is one of her top priorities.
Mike Dropcho, a retired x-ray technician and former union member, told CNN he likes that Fetterman is “down to earth.”
“He’s not some celebrity that’s just in it for who knows what,” Dropcho said. “He appears to me to be somebody that’s for the people. He’s one of us.”
Asked about Fetterman’s health and his return to the campaign trail Friday, Dropcho said he was confident Fetterman would make a return.
“After working in the medical field for so long and seeing the reports, I knew he was going to pull out okay,” he said.
Despite being off the campaign trail for much of the summer, Fetterman outraised Oz in the second quarter — bringing in nearly $11 million for the three months ended June 30 compared with about $5.5 million, including $3.2 million in personal loans, for his opponent. Fetterman has also used a barrage of television ads and digital strategies to try to define the celebrity doctor as an out-of-state figure who moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey to run for Senate.
Most recently, the campaign paid to run a billboard on the New Jersey side of the Betsy Ross Bridge, outside of Philadelphia. “Now leaving New Jersey for Pennsylvania … just like Dr. Oz,” the billboard reads.
Oz’s response — or lack thereof — set off alarm bells within the Republican Party.
A Fox poll released in late July found Fetterman leading Oz by 11 points — 47% to 36%. The poll also found that Oz supporters were far less enthusiastic than Fetterman backers, with 68% of the Democrat’s supporters saying they did so enthusiastically, compared with 35% for Oz’s backers.
The Oz campaign has targeted Fetterman’s recent time away from public campaigning.
In a video posted in July, Oz notes that “Fetterman is back on the campaign trail” as he laces up his shoes to go on a run.
“I’ve been praying for him. I am glad he is OK. … Now that he is back, John Fetterman can’t keep hiding from voters forever,” Oz says as he jogs. “I am glad Fetterman is healthy so we can worry less about his heart and his hoodie and more about the crazy leftist ideas in his head.”
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