The debate was an hour long, but it took only 90 seconds for Mehmet Oz to be whacked from all sides.
From the first question on, the celebrity surgeon running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania once again found himself on the defensive as his Republican opponents assailed him on issues such as abortion and suggested he’s too “liberal” for the GOP.
Oz, who continues to use his endorsement from former President Donald Trump to shield himself from attacks, leaned on that backing again.
“I will do exactly what he promised that I would do, which is to be smart, tough, and never let you down,” Oz said.
The event was the second time Oz and David McCormick, the other front-runner, met in a formal debate setting. They were joined on stage by Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator who has narrowly trailed them in a pair of recent public polls and has tried to establish herself as an alternative.
Jeff Bartos, a Montgomery County businessman, and Carla Sands, the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, rounded out the debate, and threw punches at the leading candidates.
The debate — held in Grove City and hosted by Newsmax, a conservative cable news network — marked one of the last opportunities for the candidates to make a splash with voters before the May 17 primary election. Pennsylvania’s contest is one of the most closely watched races in the nation, as the seat could tilt control of the Senate.
Tens of millions of dollars have flowed through the state as the candidates jockey to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection. The bulk of those dollars has been spent by Oz and McCormick, who have each kicked in huge sums of their personal fortunes.
Here are some takeaways from the hour-long debate:
Oz and McCormick have at it
Negative advertising has become so ubiquitous in this race that the front-runners attacked each other over attacking each other.
Moderator Greta Van Susteren, a lawyer and longtime political commentator, asked Oz and McCormick if their efforts to bombard Pennsylvania voters with television commercials violated Ronald Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment: “Do not speak ill of another Republican.”
McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO who has bankrolled his campaign along with support from wealthy friends, defended his ads — the most notable calling Oz a RINO, or a “Republican In Name Only.” He said the ads are “in Mehmet’s own words” and aim to show voters his shifting positions on issues, including abortion and guns.
Oz replied with a Trumpian nickname: “Desperate Dave, dishonest again.”
The celebrity surgeon again leaned heavily on the former president, saying, “Trump endorsed me because he knew that these ads were as vicious towards me and untrue, as they were against him, because they were delivered by people who are scared of what we represent, which is telling the truth and pushing back hard.”
However, in a shift from his last appearance on a debate stage, Oz didn’t bring the endorsement up until nearly 45 minutes into the hour-long program.
Polls conducted after Trump’s endorsement didn’t appear to show Oz gaining enough of a bump to run away with the race. But Oz was surely watching this week as J.D. Vance — Trump’s preferred candidate for Senate in Ohio — claimed the GOP nod despite once calling himself a “never Trump guy.”
Oz is scheduled to appear alongside Trump at a rally in Westmoreland County on Friday.
For his part, McCormick attempted to peel away support from voters skeptical of Oz’s record. He described Oz as “compromised” for serving in the Turkish military.
Oz says he was required to do so in order to maintain his dual citizenship.
Oz’s abortion stances come under fire
Van Susteren kicked off the debate with the biggest question of the week: Would the candidates support the overturning of Roe v. Wade as laid out in a leaked draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion published by Politico on Monday?
The candidates previously had signaled near-identical opposition to abortion, with minimal exceptions, but instead of clarifying their views, they used their time to attack Oz over his shifting position on reproductive science over the years. Barnette and McCormick pointed to a 2019 interview on the radio show Breakfast Club in which Oz said he was concerned about legislation in Alabama that would have amounted to a near-total ban on abortion.
Barnette shared the story of her mother’s rape at age 11 by a 21-year-old man, which she said emboldened her belief that life begins at conception. “I was not just a lump of cells,” she said. “My life has value.”
McCormick piled on: “You’ve got a track record that’s completely opposite of the idea,” he told Oz, “and it’s another example of you being completely phony.”
Since running for office, Oz has maintained that he supports abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or if the mother’s health is at risk. But his GOP detractors have accused him of waffling on the question of when life begins.
On stage Wednesday, after a brief nod to his mother-in-law’s status as an ordained minister, Oz kept his answer simple: “Life starts at conception.”
Barnette on the offensive
Barnette focused much of her attention on Oz and McCormick, whom she described as out of step with the “America First” agenda and the pro-Trump right.
She tried to contrast herself with the two enormously wealthy men by telling her personal story of growing up on a pig farm in Alabama and becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college.
But she also showed her comfort in throwing punches. Barnette called Oz and McCormick “globalists,” citing their membership in the World Economic Forum, which is best known for hosting Davos, an annual meeting of politicians and business leaders in Switzerland.
McCormick said he attended the summit with Trump. But Barnette kept pressing, saying the forum promoted metrics that score companies based on social impact and would lead to the government “treat[ing] us like China treats their people — with social credit.”
“I have no idea what she’s talking about,” McCormick said. Barnette shot back: “We just tweeted it out.”
“Tweet away,” he said, before moving on.
Throughout the night, Bartos repeatedly hit Oz and McCormick for their out-of-state residences shortly before running for election in Pennsylvania, suggesting they’d be less formidable against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic front-runner, in the general election.
Policy debate turned into a boxing match
There were several notable shifts from last week’s Senate debate — namely, the lack of chatter about the 2020 election.
But the Newsmax debate focused pointedly on foreign and domestic policy questions that allowed candidates to flex their views on everything from buying Greenland from Denmark to the detention of Uyghur Muslims in China.
But the responses often sidestepped the questions.
In response to a pointed immigration policy question about how candidates would handle people who overstay their visas, McCormick, Oz, Barnette, and Sands focused on the southern border. Several promised to finish constructing the border wall and crack down on cartels and the flow of illegal fentanyl crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
And the three offensive players of the night — Barnette, McCormick, and Bartos — sometimes used their time to bash Oz rather than clarify their own positions.
When moderator Van Susteren asked whether China should pay reparations for the coronavirus pandemic, the candidates quickly agreed yes.
But McCormick and Barnette then took turns hitting the Dr. Oz Show host over his various business dealings in China, from his television appearances in the country to a lucrative sponsorship with a multilevel marketing company called Usana Health Sciences. (McCormick has defended his own business ties to China.)
Oz rebutted with a hawkish take, accusing China of meddling in American institutions and promising to tackle the trade deficit.
“China has continually cheated at everything,” he said. “And we have not been serious about the threat they offer.”