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Inside Politics

Tonight: Fetterman, Oz Debate For First And Only Time; Fetterman Campaign Lowers Expectations Ahead Of Debate; Fetterman Campaign: Oz's Health Attacks Have Been "Cruel"; Polls Show Toss-Up Race In PA Between Fetterman, Oz; Fetterman, Oz Debate As PA Senate Race Goes Down To The Wire. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 25, 2022 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing your day with us. We are two weeks out, now in the final midterm spread, and tonight, a one night only event in a pivotal Senate race, John Fetterman versus Mehmet Oz on the debate stage, plus, blowback from the left, progressives push President Biden to pursue direct diplomacy with Russia to end the Ukraine war, then an uproar and then a clarification. And, diary excerpts, private confessions to about Chappaquiddick, a broken promise from a Supreme Court justice, the new book digs into the life of an American original, the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Up first for us though, the midterms, we count your votes two weeks from today. Early voting setting new records, get this, already upwards of nine million ballots cast across 40 states, big debates tonight remind us the consequences are enormous, and many of the key races are remarkably close. 36 governor's races, all is important, but all the more so this year because of the new politics of abortion rights. All 435 House seats up. Republicans now confident they will seize the speaker's gavel from Nancy Pelosi, and 35 Senate contests including a debate tonight in a race absolutely crucial to deciding which party will set the agenda there.

John Fetterman, Mehmet Oz square off in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It is their one and only debate. The setup, something we have never seen. Two 70-inch monitors will float above the moderators. They'll display real-time closed-captions. It's an accommodation to the Democrat Fetterman who you might remember is recovering from a stroke, that May stroke gives him auditory processing issues.

Let's get straight to Harrisburg, CNN's Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, a remarkably close race and a remarkably big night tonight.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Without question, John, and the capital here of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is really alive with interest and anticipation of this debate. And, you said more than right million Americans have already voted early. A half million Pennsylvanians have voted early already. But, after this debate tonight, certainly many more will make up their minds.

A couple issues here tonight, not just their policy differences and on that there are many, on crime, on the economy, on inflation, on abortion rights, but also the health of John Fetterman. He is the Lieutenant Governor, of course, of Pennsylvania. He has been recovering from a stroke for the last several months. The question tonight, is he able to show Pennsylvania voters that he is up to the job? His doctors have said he is. But, already, the Fetterman campaign is doing something we've seen, in overtime, trying to lower their own expectations for his performance tonight. They say, yes, he is up to the task of being a Senator. But, he is not the best debater. A memo from the Fetterman campaign laid this out in very stark detail, essentially saying that their candidate John Fetterman is going to lose the debate tonight, but is going to win the issues.

Take a look at some of this language here in this memo that was released from the Fetterman campaign. It said, "We are prepared for Oz's allies and right-wing media to circulate in malicious viral videos after the debate that try to paint John in a negative light because of awkward pauses, missing some words, and mushing some other words together." Of course, this is still part of his recovery from his stroke. That is why he is going to be using closed captioning, the same type of closed caption that we see on many televisions, except it's going to be on very large monitors above the moderators' head. So, that certainly is going to change the flow of the debate.

But, John, even more than that, the issues here are very stark and different. Crime has been front and center in this race. Of course, the economy has been as well. So, perhaps this evening, after this hour-long debate, the focus is going to be more on the differences of the issues here, and, of course, Pennsylvania, so important now even for Democrats because they believe this is the state that they can win back a seat of retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey, of course, so many other close races across the country that you'll talk about later. That's why Pennsylvania is so critical tonight for John Fetterman. John.

KING: Perhaps paramount in the Senate math, Jeff Zeleny, glad you're there for us this important day. We will check in tomorrow as well.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, Zolan Kanno-Youngs of The New York Times, and Margaret Taley of Axios. First, let's just get to the horse race because this race is as close as you can come here, the two latest polls, CBS with a poll in the field October 21 to 24 has it at 51 percent to 49 percent. That is a statistical tie. We had a poll here at CNN several days earlier. It was in the field that had it at six points there. So, did it close the race a little bit or was our poll - yes, that's a snapshot of a very, very close race.


And, to Jeff Zeleny's point, this one is currently held by a Republican. If you're a Democrat, you're 50:50. The vice president breaks your tie in the Senate. You're worried you may lose a seat out in Nevada. It's possible you lose a seat in Arizona. Georgia is a big question mark. You want this pickup to essentially give you a cushion.

MARGARET TALEY, MANAGING EDITOR, AXIOS: Yes. I think that's right. We - it's funny because we have been - the way we talk about this race and the debate tonight, it almost makes it seem like Democrats have to hold Pennsylvania. It's a Republican seat that's being vacated. But, the stakes are so high, because it's a huge insurance policy against Nevada, or some other shoe that could drop that could flip control of it.

So, Pennsylvania, because it is a pro-choice state, because Joe Biden won there, because Barack Obama won there, twice by a lot, because Trump's margin was so narrow for a lot of reasons, it really is the ultimate swing state and very powerful for Democrats. If they can flip it, and they were in a much better shape too a few weeks ago, then the polls suggest they are now. So, yes, all eyes are on it, but in kind of the opposite way that we've been talking about.

KING: In addition to the Senate races, the Senate race will affect the Senate math, obviously,--


KING: --but early in election night. It's an East Coast state. So, the polls close at eight o'clock. There are three House races in that state as well and now held by Democrats, and all of them will be decided in the suburbs. So, this Senate race will decide in the suburbs, can Dr. Oz do better than Donald Trump in the Philadelphia suburbs, in the suburbs outside Pittsburgh? Or, are the suburbs still anti-Republican? They were anti-Trump. Are they anti-Republican? That's what we're going to learn here.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And, that's, in some ways, why he has been able to sort of close the race. He has been running these ads on crime, which we know is a big issue across the country, in a lot of these states. That's something that resonates for folks in the suburbs. Sometimes people move to the suburbs, because they're afraid of the crime in the city. So, he has been, on the one hand, able to consolidate Republican support, but also sort of eat into some of those independents and suburban voters that are always so important, particularly suburban college educated white women. So, we'll see him tonight. We'll also see Barack Obama and Joe Biden campaign there, two candidates and presidents who did well with those groups of people.

KING: Just so we don't just blow past that there,--


KING: --that this will be the sole event at least on the schedule between both together, Biden and Obama going together to Pennsylvania for stops in the Philadelphia area--

TALEY: That's right.

KING: --and another in the Pittsburgh area. That's - hey, that tells you how important they view this race, and this just as well, if you don't trust us that it's important, the Senate Leadership Fund, that's the Republican super PAC aligned with Mitch McConnell plans now to add $6 million, add another $6 million to the already sizable ad buy in the Pennsylvania Senate race. It tells you right there, the money follows the stakes.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, - and let's remember the line that President Biden has often said, when his legislation has run into delays, run into trouble, when he has struggled to pass something, he is often said that when you have this slim majority it's almost as if everybody in Congress is a president themselves. So, that just tells you a little bit about the impact that this election here has.

To your point, it's going to be really interesting how crime is discussed in this debate tonight as well, and just how much and whether - just how much the odds campaign goes after Fetterman's previous advocacy for clemency as well and some of the positions that he has held, and how for the - and how Fetterman can also balance, talking about clemency and his advocacy for pardons. But, also, he has been clear that he has also supported law enforcement and the Police. So, the pandemic era rising crime will be casting a shadow of it.

KING: You make a critical point because the ads have no nuance. If you watch a democratic ad, (inaudible) you watch Republican ad, there is no nuance there. The question is can the candidates actually have a policy debate to get into the important nuances in whether it's reforming Police or defunding Police, whether it's if you're going to free people from prison? Who are we talking about here? Does the president just try to get rid of anyone for a pot conviction or something like that? So, let's listen to John Fetterman. He says, sure, I'm under attack on crime. But, listen closely, Dr. Oz attacks me. What does he say?


LT. GOV. JOHN FETTERMAN (D), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE NOMINEE: He literally doesn't have a plan other than to talk, and that's been a hallmark of his campaign, just not any plans, just cheap photo ops, or just empty kinds of arguments that are hypocritical about the things that they have chosen to support.


KING: And, it's interesting. Before we discuss that, let's give Oz his return here. Often when you hear Oz responding to Fetterman, it's in a certain location. You figure this one out.


DR. MEHMET OZ (R), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE NOMINEE: Fetterman, to your point, he said that if he had a magic wand to do anything he wanted to, his goal would be to release murderers from life in prison. Now, that could - can you imagine having a magic wand to do anything you want and you could take care of inflation although you don't need a magic wand for that. But, there is lots of things you could do, but releasing murderers from life in prison without asking the families what they think--



KING: It's - we'll come to the crime issue in a second. I'll leave that you guys. I just want to make the point it's a comfortable place for Dr. Oz. But, if you look deep into the polling, he also does have some issues shoring up his Republican support. Some Republicans aren't sure what to make of him. Trumpies aren't sure he is a Trumpy. More moderate suburban Republicans aren't sure he is one of them. That's why you see him on Fox so often. He is trying to boost his Republican support. Back to the crime issue.

KANNO-YOUNGS: No, absolutely. And, look, the crime issue has - this has been relevant in multiple kinds of elections throughout the country at this point, but the nuance that you were talking about, that is what you can hope that a debate can provide here. Are you going to - is it going to be articulated in the form of gun reform and in terms of gun legislation? Would it be articulated in the form of actually funding Police or divesting? Will it be just broader criminal justice reform? And, what do we mean by criminal justice reform? It's not just releasing anybody, obviously. That's not how it works when you're on a pardon border. You're assessing clemency.

HENDERSON: Yes. And, will Fetterman be nimble enough to go at him in a debate, because that's been a real question about, whether his health issues make him unfit for office, right? That's going to be part of the backdrop of this campaign. They are smart to lower expectations and essentially say, oh, he is not a great debater, and he'll probably lose, almost standing there and sounding relatively coherent will mean he'll do well.

TALEY: My last thought, I just wonder if Fetterman will be able to put Oz back on the defensive about some of these original issue themes, like, is he a carpet bagger, doesn't know anything about political issues? What does he really believe in? Fetterman has been on defense for weeks now because of his recovery and because of the crime argument. This is his one night to put Oz back on the defensive.

KANNO-YOUNGS: And transparency over itself.


KING: Yes, it's a high stakes debate. We always say that. Sometimes, we overuse the term, so this one, without a doubt, a big moment in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania tonight. Up next for us, the president facing new pressure from the left, House liberals say it's time to negotiate a Ukraine ceasefire with Vladimir Putin, the White House bristles at that message and at the timing.



(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: A messy and a mysterious moment for Democrats today about Ukraine. The Chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the White House yesterday, urging President Biden to negotiate an end to the war. Then, after a backlash, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal issued a clarification. This was in the clarification. Let me be clear. We are united as Democrats. We support President Biden. The earlier letter, though, urged the president to pursue "vigorous diplomacy" including "direct talks with Russia". Here is the mystery. Other progressives say this letter was drafted several months ago, then, set aside. It has been hard to get a direct answer as to why it was sent now.

Our Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju joins our conversation. Do we know why and a lot of Democrats are saying what the hell happened here?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, we've been asking this question all morning. The Japayal's office has not - has declined to comment about why this was sent out this week, just a couple of weeks before the midterm elections when the party is trying to show united front another - a number of issues not to open up new divisions. It's the Republicans right now who are sparring about whether to provide more aid to Ukraine. The Democrats are happy to have the Republicans have that debate.

But, this letter opened up a new front that why Democrats simply did not want to discuss. They did sign on to this letter, about 30 of them, back in July, calling for the bigger push towards diplomacy. But, a number of them that I talked to today, and some have said that publicly as well, say would not sign on to the letter now given the where the war is with Ukraine at this moment. So, the fact that Jayapal set this out two weeks before the midterm elections, blindsiding her members, has caused a lot of backlash, and as one veteran Democrat told me this morning, one House Democrat said, "people are furious".

KING: Oh, you say people are furious. Let's just get through some of the sampling here. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a progressive, a key progressive, "This was written in July, I have no idea where it went now", Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, "An Olive branch to a war criminal", Senator Chris Murphy, "Peril in sitting down with Putin way too early". Number one, To Manu's point, it is a policy divergence debate among Democrats at a key moment in the war. Number two, a cynical person might suggest this is the beginning of the post- election competitions for leadership.

HENDERSON: I think that's right, and that is going to be messy. I think Nancy Pelosi was asked a couple of days ago on whether or not she is going to be a speaker or is she going to be in a leadership role, maybe speaker, maybe some other role. And, she basically refused to answer that question, but, yes, the younger members chomping at the bid, the more progressive members chomping at the bid, for a leadership turnover from the folks who've been in those leadership roles for many, many years. And so, this, in some ways, could be an indication of it. It's also an indication possibly of the tough sledding that Biden could have going forward with Ukraine and some of the aid. We obviously have seen what Kevin McCarthy said, saying that there is not going to be a blank check for Ukraine, particularly of Americans are mired in a recession. And so, now, you have these are Democrats also suggesting some skepticism (ph) of that.

KING: And, to that point, McCarthy says no blank check--


KING: --because there are fiscal pressures here at home, including inflation. The Democrats, again, they're not taking the Tucker Caucus position that says give Ukraine to Putin.


KING: That's what the Tucker wing of the Republican Party thinks, who cares, give it to Putin. But, they do echo something McCarthy said in this letter. This conflict has also contributed to elevated gas and food prices at home, fueling inflation and higher oil prices for Americans in recent months. The President of the United States position is, yes, that may well be true, but it is worth it. This is a global crisis.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Right, right. It's worth it for democracy at this point. How often do you hear - this is Biden's words, how often do you hear him say this is part of this global battle between democracy and autocracy. Even just last week, you saw the line of attack from the White House, from Democrats, very much pointing to those comments from Kevin McCarthy as well, saying we're not going to give Ukraine a blank check, citing that as well and criticizing it.


TALEY: I don't think if you're sitting at home watching this conversation or reading about this and you are thinking, why does any of this matter? How does any of this impact me, is that this is another example of how the bases are disproportionately empowered in both parties, because a clear majority in the House and Senate - if you're just--

KING: A bipartisan majority, yes.

TALEY: --took party out of this, thinks that this is the right thing to do, even if it means higher gas prices, even if it means some economic pain, even if it swings majority control, because it's the U.S. versus Russia all over again. It's NATO and the post-World War Two coalition versus autocracy, right? But, everybody is so afraid of their shadow and of their bases that they can't figure out, like, can they just do this in the lame duck session, because if they could, there'd be a plan already.

RAJU: And,--

KING: And, that's what makes it so interesting in the sense that we should encourage policy debates. We should encourage everybody to speak up, especially people who are elected power to speak up the question here is why now?

RAJU: Yes. That is the big question here. And, the pressure on the leadership, to your point, is whether or not to deal with this when they get back right after the election before potentially a Republican takeover in January, which would make getting more aid difficult and whether these bases will get more influential within those respective caucuses. There is a push to do this in the lame duck session of Congress, but they'll need the support to do that, because we can see some support waning.

KANNO-YOUNGS: It is worth adding, though, that well, for everything we're saying there are some foreign policy experts at this time that are questioning how is this going to end and whether - and what are the off ramps here? And, if any sort of negotiation that doesn't involve the U.S. and it's just Ukraine and Russia, will be taken as legitimate. But, again, that doesn't undermine the timing question that you just asked.

KING: And the consistent White House position that Zelenskyy makes the decision,--

KANNO-YOUNGS: That's right.

KING: --talking to Russia, not any outside power that President Zelenskyy would make that decision. Can't let the opportunity go. You're at the table. Congrats to your bears last night. That one hurt. Up next, to the campaign trail, a face-off in Florida, a balancing act in Georgia and a highly anticipated debate in New York.




KING: To the campaign trail now, where CNN has reporters on the ground tracking the key races across the country, in New York, for example, Athena Jones tracking the governor's race, as concerns grow there for Democrats, in Georgia, Eva McKend following a tight race that could determine control of the Senate, and in Florida, Steve Contorno there covering a big debate showdown and we'll begin there. The Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is both up for reelection this year and laying the groundwork for a possible 2024 presidential run, something Democrat Charlie Crist tried to make a debate flashpoint.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: --monoclonal antibody.

CHARLIE CRIST (D), FLORIDA GOVERNOR NOMINEE: Will you serve a full four-year term if you are re-elected Governor of Florida? It's not a tough question. It's a fair question. He won't tell you.

DESANTIS: Well, listen, I know that Charlie is interested in talking about 2024 and Joe Biden. But, I just want to make things very, very clear. The only worn-out old donkey I'm looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.


KING: Abortion and immigration also among the sharp policy clashes.


DESANTIS: I'm proud of the 15 weeks that we did. I know Charlie Crist opposes that even though the baby is fully formed.

CRIST: I don't want to ban abortion. I want to make sure we keep a woman's right to choose available to the women of the State of Florida. And, I want to make sure that we don't have a governor in the future who wouldn't even allow exceptions for rape or incest. We need to secure the border. I agree with all of that. But, it doesn't mean that you use Florida taxpayers' dollars to charter to jets, go to Texas, lie to people to get them onto planes, fly them up to the northern part of our country.

DESANTIS: This is all happening under the Biden administration and the policies that Charlie Crist supports. We've had millions and millions of people pouring across illegally.


KING: Steve Contorno joins us live now. Steve, the morning after the big debate, what are the big takeaways?

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Well, John, this was the first and only debate between these two candidates, and Charlie Crist entered into last night, down in the polls, and also at a significant cash disadvantage, about $100 million and that's not an exaggeration. So, it was really incumbent on him to generate some kind of breakthrough moments, something that could galvanize Democrats and maybe disrupt this race a bit going into the final two weeks. And, to that extent, he has somewhat succeeded in creating a couple viral exchanges with Governor DeSantis.

But, DeSantis, for him, there were no major slip ups. Yes, he was kind of awkward at times. There were some uncomfortable pauses. He was gritting his teeth and shifting a little bit. But, for the most part, he had a safe, a comfortable performance that you would expect from a frontrunner. But now, we move on to the final two weeks of this race. Did this debate move the needle at not at all, as they say, you will have to wait and see. But, I will point out, John, that 1.9 million people have already cast ballots in Florida, that was going into last night, and that's already a quarter of the total people that we saw votes in all of the 2018 election. So, John, a lot of minds were already made up before last night.

KING: A lot of minds made up, and polarized politics also early voting, the new normal. Steve Contorno, thank you. To Georgia now, and it's toss-up Senate race.