Politics: A Comedic Showdown in the Keystone State

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  A Comedic Showdown in the Keystone State © Provided by Real Clear Politics

For a dead serious election that may determine which party controls the Senate come 2023, the contest in Pennsylvania between hulking Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and slender celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has its share of comic relief.

Some of it is self-aware: Walking into a Philadelphia rec center gym for a Fetterman rally, the sound system blasted ZZ Top's "Sharp-Dressed Man." Fetterman, a Democrat, has cultivated an exaggerated everyman image - black hoodie sweatshirts with sleeves scrunched up to display tattoos; billowing black basketball shorts; shaved head, and soul goatee.

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Some of it is self-inflicted: Dr. Oz, a Republican running for office for the first time, filmed a video for social media in which he went grocery shopping so that his wife could make "crudités." He had hoped to illustrate the rising cost of asparagus in Joe Biden's America. He was, instead, mercilessly mocked by the Twitterverse for preparing overly precious appetizers.

Fetterman devoted a minute or two of his brief remarks in Philadelphia to the ill-fated supermarket stunt. With practiced timing, he made a bewildered face and asked who had ever heard of crudités. "I had to look it up," he quipped.

It was a laugh line, but it was more than just a way to make Oz look foolish. To win in closely contested Pennsylvania, Republicans can't afford to lose the support of rural and small-town voters. The Democratic candidate, by contrast, can count on urban strongholds Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Fetterman devoted most of his time at the podium in Philly urging his voters to actually vote, and to get their friends to vote, too. The Fetterman campaign seems convinced that crudités has become a one-word shorthand for Republicans losing the marginal votes of the regular guy.

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Is Dr. Oz going to lose the race? Yes, at least if one listens to the warnings coming from Oz himself. "End of our rope" is the startling headline of a text message from the Republican's campaign. "Dr. Oz is trailing, and Pennsylvania is looking more blue every day. We can't go on like this. We really can't." A pitch for a donation follows. "Dr. Oz is behind by 2, and PA looks like it could GO BLUE," the Oz campaign warns. "We can't go out like this." The RealClearPolitics poll average currently has Fetterman at 49.2%, over 45% for Oz.

Usually, candidates try to build confidence in their prospects by touting good poll results, whether that means polling that shows the candidate is winning, or just building momentum. Oz is doing the exact opposite. "WE ARE LOSING!" screamed a text from Oz this week. On Saturday there was another dismal text from the doctor: "Right now, Dem John Fetterman is winning," declared the Oz campaign. With disaster always at the door, the team working with Oz offers a seemingly concrete solution: A recent text looked for help responding to Fetterman's "dishonest ads" to make "one of the final ad-buys of this election," Oz wrote to his donors. "We are only $8,051 short."

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The same dire tone is used to energize supporters of former president Donald Trump. "Last chance to save Trump, Friend," reads a text from the Oz campaign last week. "Trump-endorsed Senate candidates are trailing!" This last fundraising pitch suggests that Pennsylvania Republicans view the upcoming election not just as a referendum on the former president, but as an opportunity to protect him by assembling a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

Republicans have been hammering Fetterman as soft on crime. In his role as head of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, Fetterman helped get brothers Dennis and Lee Horton released from prison, where they had been serving sentences for second-degree murder. Fetterman says the two were wrongly convicted and hired them to work on his campaign. Though the issue has gotten traction for the Oz campaign, the Hortons were among the speakers introducing Fetterman at the rally. In the course of his speech, Fetterman brought the Hortons up on stage with him.

After the rally, supporters lined up behind the "Fettermobile," a step-van painted like a food-truck, but with Fetterman campaign livery. Fetterman staffers opened the back of the van and handed out armloads of yard signs. A young African American passerby with sunglasses and a well-groomed beard strolled along the line. "Fetterman's not a big Black people supporter," he said loudly, "he's from Western Pennsylvania!" After he had repeated that up and down the line, a woman waiting for campaign swag shouted over him, "Why don't you just go somewhere!" He didn't argue. He just kept walking and disappeared down the street.

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