PITTSBURGH — When Dr. Mehmet Oz talks about bringing “balance” to politics if he is elected to the Senate, it might seem as if he is talking about the split screen of his own campaign: the conservative-sounding candidate who won former President Donald J. Trump’s crucial endorsement before the Pennsylvania primary, versus the TV doctor who is wooing suburban voters as an independent-minded voice of reason.
On Saturday, when he plans to appear at a rally with the former president in western Pennsylvania, the tableau onstage will embody the tension at the heart of his campaign — between Mr. Trump’s right-wing politics of grievance and Dr. Oz’s own pivot to the center in the last days of a deadlocked race with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, his Democratic rival.
Unlike other Republicans whom Mr. Trump has boosted on his tour of states with close races, including Arizona and Nevada, Dr. Oz, the former celebrity TV host, does not fit easily into a mold shaped to appeal to the Make America Great Again crowd.
Mr. Trump’s support may have pulled him across the finish line in the primary, but Dr. Oz has kept the former president largely at arm’s length in the general election, especially in its homestretch. Asked in a debate last month whether he would support Mr. Trump if he runs in 2024, Dr. Oz finessed his answer: “I will support whoever the Republican Party puts up.”
The Fetterman campaign this week highlighted the joint rally, which is in Latrobe, Pa., to lash Dr. Oz to Mr. Trump’s election denialism, as well as to Doug Mastriano, the hard-right Republican running for governor, who is also set to appear on the stage. “Oz’s attempts to paint himself as a moderate and distance himself from Trump and Mastriano in the general election are falling apart when it matters most,’’ a Fetterman campaign memo said this week.
A Democratic operative in Pennsylvania, J.J. Abbott, drew a line between Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Mr. Fetterman this week and the Oz-Trump appearance, calling it “horrific timing” as Dr. Oz tries “to get suburban voters to like him.”
But it is far from clear that the rally will meaningfully scuff up Dr. Oz’s brand. In his final TV ads of the race, he has struck the “balance” theme repeatedly. He claims that both political parties are guilty of “extremism” and leaves viewers with an onscreen slogan: “Bring balance to Washington.”
“I don’t think there’s a real risk to Mehmet Oz being with Donald Trump on Saturday afternoon,’’ said Bill Bretz, the Republican chairman of Westmoreland County, where the rally is set to take place at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
He acknowledged that Dr. Oz “was never the ultra-MAGA candidate.” Mr. Bretz has met with Dr. Oz, adding, “Dr. Oz relishes the support of Donald Trump, but he doesn’t necessarily need the baggage of all the other things people want to associate with him.”
Should Dr. Oz emerge the victor on Tuesday, he may earn comparisons to another Republican, Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who successfully played a double game by appealing to the Trump rural base in his 2021 race while also keeping enough distance from the former president so as not to alarm suburban independents.
Those suburbanites are the voters both Senate candidates in Pennsylvania are fighting over now that each has secured his party’s base, as confirmed by polling. Suburban voters’ rejection of Mr. Trump in 2020 largely eased the narrow victory Joseph R. Biden Jr. secured in Pennsylvania.
In recent appearances, Dr. Oz has barely uttered the name “Trump,” while attempting to project a reassuring bedside manner and the message that, as a former heart surgeon, he can bring “unity” to politics.
“He has all the hard-core Trump voters, all the voters who are super concerned about inflation,’’ said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant in the state. “If you see him pivoting to a positive message about ‘we need to bring people together,’ it’s because those folks who are still undecided are saying that’s what interests them the most.”
Mr. Fetterman, too, is finishing with an appeal for the same voters. In a final ad that expresses his gratitude for his family after a stroke in May, he says, “Politicians spend so much time fighting about the things that don’t matter,” and pledges, “We got to make it easier for people to spend time with those they love.” (His doctor said recently that Mr. Fetterman had “no work restrictions.”)
Dr. Oz’s de-Trumpification began even before he was officially certified the winner of the party’s primary in May. In a race so close it went to a recount, Dr. Oz ignored Mr. Trump’s suggestion to declare pre-emptive victory over his rival, David McCormick.
Then, almost immediately after becoming the nominee, a photo of Dr. Oz standing with Mr. Trump was struck from the top of his website, as was the “Endorsed by Trump” line from the top of his social media accounts.
In September, Dr. Oz said that if he had been in the Senate on Jan. 6, 2021, he would have certified Mr. Biden’s election, defying Mr. Trump’s repeated falsehood that he was the victor of a rigged election.
Before that, Dr. Oz said he had questions about 2020 election procedures, but he sidestepped when asked directly if Mr. Biden’s victory was invalid. On guns and abortion, he flip-flopped from earlier liberal positions once he entered the Republican primary, and then seemed to shift depending on the audience.
His inability at first to convince members of the Trump-centric base that he was a part of their movement cost him some supporters early on. As the nominee, he trailed Mr. Fetterman by double digits in polls in August and early September, when surveys showed about one in five Republican voters did not support him. But gradually the race tightened, as Republicans coalesced behind their nominee, with the contest in a statistical tie today.