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'Tonight ... is about being grateful': John Fetterman returns to campaign stage months after stroke

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman returned to the campaign stage on Friday evening in Erie, accompanied by his wife Gisele and the AC/DC rock anthem “Back in Black.” After a stroke that sidelined him from public appearances for months, he broke that silence with a speech that lasted less than a quarter-hour and largely restated familiar tropes.

“Tonight, for me, is about being grateful,” said Fetterman, referring both to the hundreds of supporters who filled a hall of the Bayfront Convention Center and his surviving the medical crisis that struck him just before the May primary.

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“Three months ago, my life could have ended,” he said. And now, he said, “We’re in Erie, because if you can’t win Erie County, you can’t win Pennsylvania.”

The campaign said more than 1,300 supporters packed the room as Gisele Fetterman introduced the candidate as “my husband and your lieutenant governor, a stroke survivor, and the next senator from Pennsylvania.”

Fetterman’s own speech was short on policy but long on digs at his rival, Republican celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Fetterman himself opened with a joke that mocked Oz’s attacks on his campaign: “Are we in Erie, or did I fit 1,400 people in my basement?” he said — a reference to a “basement tracker” that the Oz campaign has deployed to call attention to Fetterman’s absence from in-person campaigning.

His ensuing speech lasted less than 15 minutes, without notes, and his delivery was at times stilted and lacked some of the forcefulness that often characterized his appearances before the primary election in May.

He pledged repeatedly to continue pursuing his “Every county, every vote,” strategy — “We’re going to take this to every single voter,” he said — and to break the Senate’s tie and promote the Democratic agenda.

“You are going to deliver for us in November, and that will deliver the 51st vote in the Senate,” he said.

And his jokes at Oz’s expense were well-received by the crowd.

“Do you think Dr. Oz could fill a room like this?” he asked.

“If he paid for it!” a member of the audience shouted back.

A chorus of introductory speakers made the case that Fetterman could both deliver for traditional Democratic constituencies while picking up voters who had soured on the party.

“Winning the seat is critical, especially for Black and brown communities, for LGBT communities, for women’s health rights,” said Erie City Council Vice President Michael Keys.

Meanwhile, Lindsey Scott, who chairs the Democratic committee in heavily Republican Crawford County next door, said Fetterman had her voters “fired up, and we’re ready to win this race.”

Scott, who said she is a veteran and a former Republican,” said he could connect with red areas, in part because “John Fetterman won’t screw us over.” And while leaders from both parties had proven willing to send U.S. troops into battle, “Only one party seems interested in caring for us when we get back,” she added.

As Fetterman noted at one point, Erie County has showed up huge for him. In May, 80 percent of Democrats backed him in a primary that he won statewide by 59 percent. And he urged its voters to support him again in November: “At the end of the day here, if you come out and step with us, we will be able to stand with you in D.C.”

Oz’s campaign had sought to cast cold water on Fetterman’s return, issuing a statement calling on Fetterman to commit to debates in the campaign. And Fetterman himself did not engage with reporters Friday evening.

But the enthusiasm for his message was obvious more than hour before the doors opened. Scores of attendees — and a life-size photo cutout of the 6-foot-8-inch candidate — lined up outside the convention center well before the doors opened. Those in line said they were excited to have Erie get such attention from a marquee candidate, and that Fetterman would excite Democratic voters.

“I just want him to pump us up and let us know that he’s going to take care of us, like he has been in all his other roles,” said Kathy Trombacco of Erie. “Things change drastically wherever John Fetterman goes.“

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.