ERIE, Pa. — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, returned to the campaign trail on Friday evening for his first major public event since he suffered a stroke in mid-May.
Mr. Fetterman was by turns emotional and brash as he addressed an exuberant crowd, acknowledging the gravity of the health scare he faced while also slamming his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician, and pledging to fight for “every county, every vote.”
“Tomorrow is three months ago — three months ago, my life could have ended,” said Mr. Fetterman, who spoke for around 11 minutes after which greeted some attendees. At one other point, his voice appeared to interrupt as he added: “I just got so grateful — and I’m so lucky. So thanks for being here.”
The rally in Erie — in a swing county in what is probably the nation’s ultimate swing state — was a vital moment in a race that might determine control of the Senate. It was Mr. Fetterman’s first official in-person campaign event of the final election as he runs against Dr. Oz, who squeaked through the Republican primary with the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Fetterman’s stroke occurred days before the Democratic primary in May, and in early June, his doctor said he also had a serious heart condition. His wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, introduced him on Friday as a “stroke survivor.”
Several individuals who have spoken with him or heard him speak at private events described him as wanting to return to the campaign trail, though some have also said it was evident when he was reaching for a word. He has acknowledged that challenge, and it was at times apparent on Friday when he began a sentence over or spoke haltingly.
“I’ll miss a word sometimes, or I would mush two words together sometimes in a conversation, but that’s really the one issue, and it’s recuperating and higher day by day,” Mr. Fetterman recently told KDKA-TV, the CBS station in Pittsburgh.
But onstage on Friday, Mr. Fetterman also got here across as high-energy, and his remarks sometimes took on the texture of a stand-up routine, fueled by a supportive crowd of 1,355 people, in accordance with an organizer whose information was provided by the campaign.
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“There’s loads of differences between me and Dr. Oz,” Mr. Fetterman said to laughter, as he wondered what number of mansions his opponent owned.
Before the event, the road to get into the convention center snaked deep into the parking zone, drawing each older voters — including a minimum of two who said that they had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 — and a young woman in a glittering sash, who said she had chosen to spend her nineteenth birthday at his campaign rally. Several attendees of various ages cited abortion rights when discussing their votes within the Senate race, after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“To look at, at my age, to have it taken away from my great-granddaughters, my granddaughters, my daughters, is just so upsetting to my heart, that I’m here for Roe v. Wade,” said Judy Pasold, 80, who thought Mr. Fetterman sounded “thoroughly.” “That’s why it’s going to be Democrat all through. Probably. Because many of the Republicans have gone the opposite way, to date the opposite way.”
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Mr. Fetterman’s remarks were light on policy, though he nodded to his support for issues including abortion rights, raising the minimum wage and eliminating the filibuster.
Public polling has shown him with a powerful lead over Dr. Oz, and he has far outpaced the Republican nominee in fund-raising. Outside spending from each parties is expected to be significant, though, and lots of strategists expect an in depth race in a narrowly divided state.
Despite his absence from the campaign trail, Mr. Fetterman and his team have pushed to define Dr. Oz as, essentially, a carpetbagger, casting the Republican as more comfortable in Latest Jersey — which had been his longtime principal residence — than in Pennsylvania, where he says he now lives in a Philadelphia suburb. It was apparent on the event that the deal with residency had broken through with some voters.
“I can’t consciously vote for Oz — he’s not a resident of this state,” said David Mongera, 70, who said the last Republican he voted for was Mr. Trump in 2016. “It’s a political move.”
But he has sought to project a vigorous presence, posting pictures from diners — he visited Capitol Diner in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday, his campaign said — and criticizing Mr. Fetterman over his absence from the campaign trail.
“Dr. Mehmet Oz is relentless in campaigning across the Commonwealth, listening and sharing concerns of the people he meets, and showing up for Pennsylvanians,” Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for Dr. Oz, said in a press release.
“It’s time for Fetterman to point out up,” Dr. Oz wrote on Twitter. “Pennsylvanians need to hear from their candidates.”
Dr. Oz has also tried to link Mr. Fetterman to President Biden, who has struggled with anemic approval rankings, and to Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Mr. Fetterman backed within the 2016 presidential primary, working to solid the Democratic nominee as too liberal for the state.
Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Mr. Fetterman, didn’t commit to a selected variety of debates but said Mr. Fetterman planned on debating Dr. Oz.
Democrats in Pennsylvania have been anxious to see Mr. Fetterman return to creating more public appearances. Mr. Calvello said the “pace will likely be picking up” because the candidate continues to boost money and plans events like meet-and-greets this month.
Mr. Fetterman opened his event by mocking Dr. Oz’s criticism of him and later challenged him to carry an event of comparable size.
“Are we in Erie?” he asked. “Or have I fit 1,400 people in my basement?”
Mr. Fetterman, who has pledged to campaign in areas which are often considered inhospitable to Democrats, also spent significant time during his speech emphasizing the political importance of Erie, which is closely divided.
“When you can’t win Erie County,” he said, “You may’t win Pennsylvania.”