Exclusive: Rocky debate erodes Fetterman's lead over Oz in pivotal Pennsylvania Senate race

A rocky debate performance has eroded Democrat John Fetterman's lead over Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania's pivotal Senate race, an exclusive USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds.

The contest is up for grabs, the survey shows, with an unusually high 19% of independents undecided, even as early voting has opened.

Fetterman is at 47% and Oz is at 45%. In a USA TODAY Network poll taken in late September, Fetterman had led 46%-40%.

The only debate between the candidates cost support for Fetterman, who sometimes struggled with words in the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in May. More than half of those surveyed watched last week's debate, and they overwhelmingly judged Oz as the winner, 62%-17%.

In case you missed it: 5 takeaways from Pennsylvania's John Fetterman-Dr. Oz debate in key U.S. Senate race

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, and Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz shake hands prior to the Nexstar Pennsylvania Senate at WHTM abc27 in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 25.
Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, left, and Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz shake hands prior to the Nexstar Pennsylvania Senate at WHTM abc27 in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 25.

Seven percent of those now supporting other Senate candidates or undecided in the race say they would have voted for Fetterman if he hadn't had a stroke.

"That 7% is the difference between an easy win and an all-out scramble to win this seat," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

Fetterman says he knew the debate "wasn't going to be easy" but defended his decision to participate in it. “I thought it was important that I show up, and I did," he said on CNN Tuesday.

The poll of 500 Pennsylvanians who are likely to vote or have already cast their ballots, taken by landline and cellphone on Oct. 27-30, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Who's more moderate? Voters split

The campaign in Pennsylvania has drawn enormous national attention because it is seen as the Democrats' best chance of flipping a seat now held by a Republican. That would bolster Democratic odds of maintaining control in a Senate that is now divided 50-50. Vice President Kamala Harris casts tie-breaking votes, giving Democrats narrow control.

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But the Republican nominee, the celebrity physician known to nearly everyone as Dr. Oz, has countered Democratic attacks on him as extreme by portraying Fetterman as out of the mainstream on crime and other issues.

Asked which candidate is more moderate, 42% now choose Fetterman, and 40% choose Oz.

That has helped Oz make huge gains among independents. In September, Fetterman led 43%-29% among voters not aligned with a party. Now that has turned around, with Oz leading among independents 43%-32%. Nearly 1 in 5 independents is still undecided.

The gender gap is opening a chasm. Oz now leads among men by 16 points; Fetterman leads among women by 18 points. The racial divide is widening too. Oz is up 7 points among white voters; Fetterman is up an overwhelming 63 points among Black voters.

And this: Fetterman is crushing Oz 75%-19% among those who have already voted; Oz leads 52%-39% among those who say they are almost certain to vote but haven't yet.

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No contest in the governor's race

In the governor's race, Democrat Josh Shapiro continues to have a healthy lead, now 52%-40%, over Republican Doug Mastriano. While Oz is backed by 9 of 10 Republicans, Mastriano has been less successful in consolidating support within his own party. He is supported by 79% of Republicans; Shapiro by 15%.

Pessimism about the economy has deepened in Pennsylvania. Now 46% call the economic conditions in the state "poor;" up a few points in the past month.

President Joe Biden, whose roots are in Scranton, has seen his job approval rating decline a few points, to 38% approve-51% disapprove.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fetterman's lead over Oz erodes in Pennsylvania Senate poll