HARRISBURG, Pa. — Dr. Mehmet Oz is taking a sharper tone in attacking the health of Democrat John Fetterman in their Pennsylvania Senate race, with the celebrity heart surgeon's campaign saying that if the state's lieutenant governor "had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn't have had a major stroke."
And in a phone call Wednesday to The Associated Press, an aide to the Republican nominee questioned whether Fetterman was "too sick to debate" — a suggestion brushed off by Fetterman's campaign as Oz pushes for a televised debate Sept. 6.
The increasingly pointed and personal barbs come as Oz is trailing Fetterman in polls in the November matchup that could help decide Senate control. Democrats see the contest to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey as among their best opportunities nationally to pick up a seat.
Fetterman's latest high-profile trolling of Oz on social media has focused on Oz's effort to spotlight the country's high inflation by shopping for "crudités" — raw vegetables cut up and served as an hors d'oeuvre — in a state with cities that pride themselves on cheesesteaks and pierogies, potato-filled dumplings.
Oz's stepped-up claims about Fetterman's health may reflect a vulnerability for the Democrat as he recovers from the stroke days before the May 17 primary. Party officials had initially been nervous about Fetterman's disappearance from the campaign for nearly three months while he was on the mend. But they insist they are confident he is fully capable of running — and Fetterman says he wouldn't be in the race if he weren't able to campaign and win.
Oz, the former host of daytime TV's "Dr. Oz Show," has contended that Fetterman is hiding, refusing to commit to a debate and has conducted just two media interviews since the stroke.
Fetterman and his campaign say the Oz's camp went too far in blaming Fetterman himself for his stroke.
"I had a stroke. I survived it. I'm truly so grateful to still be here today," Fetterman said on Twitter. "I know politics can be nasty, but even then, I could (asterisk)never(asterisk) imagine ridiculing someone for their health challenges."
A Fetterman campaign spokesperson, Joe Calvello, said Fetterman is healthy enough to debate, walks 5 miles to 6 miles a day and has been honest about his recovery, saying he is working with a therapist to deal with some speech and hearing problems.
An Oz campaign adviser, Barney Keller, said Oz and his team are simply giving Fetterman "good health advice" to eat vegetables.
As for the proposed debate at a Pittsburgh TV station, the Fetterman campaign said it's not up to Oz to dictate the terms of the debate schedule.
Keller said Oz has done no such thing, leaving Oz's campaign to conclude that Fetterman isn't being honest about the extent to which he is affected by the stroke.
"Either he's healthy enough to debate and should debate, or he's not healthy enough to debate and he should say so," Keller said. But, he added, "Why lie about it? Why continue to lie about how sick he is?"
Fetterman's public schedule has been relatively light, although he did speak for four minutes at a steelworkers' union rally in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
The Oz's campaign's statement about Fetterman's diet tries to play into the narrative that the Democrat is not being transparent about his health.
"If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn't have had a major stroke and wouldn't be in the position of having to lie about it constantly," Oz's campaign said.
It came in response to Fetterman's latest social media trolling, capitalizing on a video in which Oz tries to highlight rising inflation by pointing out the high prices for ingredients to make "crudités."
Fetterman took to social media to tell Oz that "in PA we call this a ... veggie tray," a rebuke that slams Oz on two narratives favored by Fetterman's campaign: that Oz is super wealthy and out of touch, and that Oz is really from New Jersey, not Pennsylvania.
Fetterman's campaign said it raised more than a $1 million off its campaign to lampoon Oz's "crudités" video.