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John Fetterman's back on the Senate campaign trail. The end of Roe has changed things

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

John Fetterman appears ready to resume in-person campaigning. That's after the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor's run for the U.S. Senate took an unexpected turn when he suffered a stroke just days before the May primary. Despite his health issues, he still won the Democratic nomination and now faces Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in November. Fetterman's return to the trail comes just as issues like abortion rights and gun violence have taken on a new intensity. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Fetterman's health scare sparked concerns over what this meant for him and for the fall election, especially after he and his doctors revealed that the stroke was related to a previously diagnosed heart condition that Fetterman had largely ignored for years. In the weeks after the primary, I talked to some Fetterman voters in downtown Philadelphia. Forty-three-year-old Greg Boulware works for the city employees union.

GREG BOULWARE: Oh, that was a little scary. Like, it was like, day to day, you know, getting different news bits about what was going on with his health, whether he would maintain in the race, whether he would drop out, what was going to happen.

GONYEA: But another Fetterman voter, 63-year-old IT worker Carlton Sampson, had no such worries, adding that he's had some heart issues himself.

CARLTON SAMPSON: I got a heart condition, too, so yeah. It's like - made me feel even closer to him, you know? He's mortal, too, right?

GONYEA: Fetterman is known as an energetic, unconventional campaigner, mostly showing up at events in basketball shorts and a hooded sweatshirt over his 6-foot-8 frame. It's a blue-collar vibe but with a master's in public policy from Harvard. Fetterman has not campaigned publicly since his hospitalization, but his reemergence began last weekend. He tweeted out a short video of a surprise visit with campaign volunteers in Pittsburgh.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: He spoke just briefly. He looked healthy, even if his voice was less booming than we're used to. He's a bit off-mic in this clip but seems to momentarily choke up a bit when he mentions what he's gone through.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FETTERMAN: I got to tell you, it nearly almost was the end of my life, you know? And it's totally changed my life since then. And we know what's at stake in this race right now.

GONYEA: The coming months will determine if voters see his health as an issue. But while he's been recuperating, other major issues have come to the fore, like mass shootings and the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Polls show Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support legal abortion. And that decision could motivate moderate voters to back Fetterman, who pledges to end the Senate filibuster to codify Roe into law. Republican Mehmet Oz, meanwhile, has praised the court's ruling.

Yet economic anxiety and soaring inflation still top the list of voter concerns. Add in President Biden's dismal job approval ratings, and Oz is counting on voters holding Democrats accountable. Berwood Yost is a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

BERWOOD YOST: The economy and President Biden's performance are both at the same place they were in May during the primary. And so the foundational issues that are shaping this campaign have stayed in place.

GONYEA: Now, there's also the abortion ruling. Democrats are angry, but Yost says its impact on votes is still unknown.

YOST: You know, we've never had a circumstance in a midterm election where an established fundamental right has been rescinded by the court. So we don't really know what it means.

GONYEA: Fetterman, even while recovering from illness, has been using abortion rights and the need for stronger gun regulations to try to drive turnout among suburban voters who often make the difference in this closely divided state. Democratic activists are already doing the same. Thirty-eight-year-old Heather Isbell Schumacher works as an archivist and lives in Delaware County, outside Philadelphia. She says the abortion ruling makes things especially urgent. Her focus is on both the Senate and gubernatorial races.

HEATHER ISBELL SCHUMACHER: We have to hold the line in Pennsylvania. Like, to me, this is holding the line. I have lived in Texas for many years. I have family still there. I honestly feel like if we don't elect these two Democrats, are we going to be Texas? That's scary.

GONYEA: Fetterman's campaign stresses that he'll keep talking about his plans for the economy as well as abortion and gun violence. For the past two months, he's been doing just that on social media and in op-ed pieces in local papers. In the next week or two, he's expected to again start doing it in rooms full of voters in person.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.