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John Fetterman agrees to TV debate in Harrisburg with closed captioning. Mehmet Oz says he’s in, pending three requests.

Fetterman also requested two practice sessions ahead of time so he could be comfortable using the closed-caption system.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman shakes hands with supporters after his recent rally in Blue Bell.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman shakes hands with supporters after his recent rally in Blue Bell.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

They set a date for October but the debate has already begun.

Democratic nominee John Fetterman said Wednesday that he’d debate his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz on Oct. 25 at a TV studio in Harrisburg.

Oz said he’d agree to the debate, hosted by Nexstar, if three requests regarding Fetterman’s accommodations are met.

Fetterman, who suffered a stroke May 13, and had faced mounting pressure to commit to debate, will have access to closed-caption monitors during the debate, both campaigns said.

“Enough distractions, it’s time to talk about the issues,” said Rebecca Katz, senior advisor to the Fetterman campaign. She said the closed captioning, which he’s used in one-on-one interviews with reporters, would help Fetterman “facilitate a seamless conversation.”

Oz’s campaign said Fetterman also requested two “practice sessions” with Nexstar ahead of time so he could be comfortable using the closed-caption system. (Fetterman’s campaign called it a standard walkthrough).

“It’s a debate that Fetterman insisted be delayed until only two weeks remain in the campaign, to keep voters in the dark as long as possible,” Oz campaign manager Casey Contres said. “And it’s a debate in which Fetterman insisted on accommodations for his health condition, accommodations that are not permitted on the U.S. Senate floor.”

» READ MORE: Two new polls show an edge for John Fetterman in Pa.’s Senate race, and Mehmet Oz’s support looking unenthusiastic

Contres said Oz’s attendance hinges on three requests: that a moderator explain that Fetterman is using closed captioning; that no questions asked during a practice session resemble those asked during the actual debate; and that the duration of the debate increase from 60 to 90 minutes.

“We believe that it would be unfair to viewers interested in the candidates’ positions to waste airtime while closed captioners type questions and answers,” Contres said.

Fetterman’s live TV interviews with closed captions, which generally are not manually typed out, have not had noticeable delays.

Fetterman’s campaign quickly responded Wednesday, saying they had no problem with an announcement that closed captions were in use nor would they expect questions ahead of time.

“We are not sure why the Oz team is inferring that the professional people at Nexstar are a part of some grand conspiracy here to give us questions earlier,” the campaign said in a statement.

But on the 30-minute extension, Fetterman’s team drew the line.

“Oz agreed to a 60 minute Nexstar debate,” Katz said. “Then we agreed to a 60 minute Nexstar debate. Now, suddenly 60 minutes isn’t good enough, and he’s demanding 90. Let’s be real: If we agreed to 10 debates, Oz would be demanding 20. He’s going to keep trying to move the goalposts, because this is his only play.”

» READ MORE: Fetterman, and Oz (sort of) weigh in on Sen. Lindsey Graham’s 15-week abortion ban

Oz criticizes timing of the debate

The back and forth over debates has taken center stage in the key Senate race. Oz, who trails Fetterman slightly in most polls, has called on Fetterman to debate as soon as possible, arguing voters who vote early by mail deserve to see the two candidates go toe to toe.

Oz’s campaign said the Republican had accepted seven debate invitations and chided Fetterman for pushing back the date of the Nexstar debate, originally scheduled for Oct. 5.

Fetterman’s campaign defended the timing, about two weeks from Election Day, in line with when previous Senate debates have been held.

“For perspective, even during the pandemic-altered election of 2020, when historic numbers voted by mail, 83% of ballots in Pennsylvania were cast in the final two weeks leading up to the election,” Katz said.“Not that Dr. Oz would know that; in 2020, he voted in New Jersey.”

» READ MORE: ‘Women are the reason we can win,’ John Fetterman says at packed abortion-rights rally in Montco

Until Wednesday’s announcement, Fetterman had said he would do one debate without committing to anything specific. The campaign has said Fetterman’s lingering speech and auditory processing issues, following his stroke, required an assessment of the best environment for a debate.

Both campaigns gave a preview of what they’re eager to talk about.

“While John will be debating Dr. Oz next month, Oz doesn’t have to wait that long to be honest with Pennsylvania voters about where he really stands on abortion,” Katz said. “It’s a simple question, doctor: Would you vote for the Republicans’ national abortion ban, or would you vote against it?”

» READ MORE: ‘Dr. Oz wears pants:’ Republicans rally to support Mehmet Oz in Bucks County

Contres said Oz will continue to push for more and earlier debates.

“While John Fetterman continues to mostly campaign from his basement, Doctor Oz will continue to rigorously campaign in every corner of the Commonwealth,” Contres said. “Voters need to hear about John Fetterman’s radical record of supporting parole for violent murderers.”

According to Fetterman’s release, the debate will be available live on nine television stations: WPXI in Pittsburgh, WHTM in Harrisburg/Lancaster/Lebanon/York, WPHL in Philadelphia, WTAJ in Johnstown/Altoona/State College, WBRE and WYOU in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, WJET and WFXP in Erie, and WYTV in Youngstown, Ohio. It will also be livestreamed.