Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, is expected to return to the campaign trail on Friday evening for his first major public event since he suffered a stroke in mid-May.
The rally in Erie, Pa. — in a swing county in what is perhaps the nation’s ultimate swing state — will be an important moment in a race that could determine control of the Senate. It will be Mr. Fetterman’s first official in-person campaign event of the general election as he runs against Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician who squeaked through the Republican primary with the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump.
“There’s a reason we’re here and we’re not in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh,” said Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Mr. Fetterman, who he said was “never a planned remarks guy.” Mr. Calvello said the candidate would “talk about the importance of competing in Erie, how it is this bellwether place.”
He will also, Mr. Calvello said, discuss “how grateful he is” for the opportunity “to be back on the campaign trail.”
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. The candidate, who said he had “almost died,” pledged to devote time to recovery. The public initially heard little from him, except in brief video clips.
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In recent weeks, Mr. Fetterman has started to emerge, greeting volunteers, granting a few local interviews and attending fund-raisers and events, including with senators and other Senate hopefuls. Democrats in the state are anxious to see him return to making more public appearances. Mr. Calvello said the “pace will be picking up” as Mr. Fetterman continues to raise money and plans events like meet-and-greets this month.
“I’ll miss a word sometimes, or I might mush two words together sometimes in a conversation, but that’s really the only issue, and it’s getting better and better every day,” Mr. Fetterman told KDKA-TV, the CBS station in Pittsburgh, in his first television interview since the stroke.
Several people who have spoken with him or heard him speak in recent weeks described him as energetic and eager to return to the campaign trail, though in interviews last month, some said it was also evident when he was reaching for a word, a challenge he has acknowledged.
Despite his absence from the campaign trail, Mr. Fetterman and his team have pressed a relentless case that Dr. Oz is, essentially, a carpetbagger, casting the Republican as more comfortable in New Jersey — which had been his longtime principal residence — than in Pennsylvania, where he says he now lives in a Philadelphia suburb.
In a series of attention-grabbing moves, Mr. Fetterman’s campaign deployed Nicole Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” fame — better known as Snooki — to record a video for Dr. Oz, pledging that “Jersey will not forget you.” And Steven Van Zandt, a musician and actor who has reached legend status in New Jersey, recorded a direct-to-camera message to Dr. Oz urging him to “come on back to Jersey where you belong.”
For his part, Dr. Oz, who has faced some challenges consolidating his base, has criticized Mr. Fetterman over his absence from the campaign trail. Dr. Oz, a heart surgeon, unveiled a site calling Mr. Fetterman a “basement bum,” and has challenged his rival to commit to debates. Mr. Calvello did not commit to a specific number of debates but said Mr. Fetterman planned on debating Oz.
Dr. Oz has also tried to link Mr. Fetterman to President Biden, who has struggled with anemic approval ratings, and to Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Mr. Fetterman backed in the 2016 presidential primary.
In the lead-up to the Friday evening event, Mr. Fetterman’s campaign introduced an “official rally poster.”
“Before the 2020 election, I said that if I could know one single fact about the results, I could tell you who was going to win Pennsylvania,” Mr. Fetterman said in a statement before the event. “Whoever wins Erie County will win Pennsylvania.”