(Bloomberg) -- Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman hasn’t been on the campaign trail in his US Senate race since suffering a stroke in May. Yet he’s built an early lead over celebrity physician Mehmet Oz in what’s supposed to be a favorable election year for Republicans with the help of Snooki and “The Sopranos” character Silvio.
Fetterman has embraced a strategy that is unconventional by necessity, steering much of the campaign combat onto social media. The commonwealth’s lieutenant governor has been trolling Oz on Twitter and trumpeted videos from Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, star of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and Steven Van Zandt, the actor who played Tony Soprano’s consigliere, mocking Oz for relocating to Pennsylvania from New Jersey.
The tactics have Fetterman leading by 8.7 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. The most recent survey, from Fox News, shows Fetterman with an 11-point advantage in a race both parties have targeted in their bids to control the now-deadlocked Senate.
Fetterman recently has made only short appearances at exclusive fundraisers and has missed deadlines he set for himself to return to traditional campaigning, fostering doubts about his health and ability to beat Oz in November.
But he insists he’s fit to continue and has announced he’ll return to in-person campaigning on Friday with a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Read More: Fetterman to Restart Rallies Against Oz After Stroke
“I would never be in this if we were not absolutely, 100% able to run fully and to win — and we believe that we are,” Fetterman said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month.
That interview, the only one he’s given since the primary, was conducted via a video call from his home in Braddock, Pennsylvania, with the assistance of closed-captioning. Fetterman acknowledged that he sometimes misses a word and slurs his speech, and is working with a speech therapist.
Instead of in-person events, Fetterman has flooded social media with snarky digs at the Donald Trump-endorsed Oz, taking aim at his celebrity, his wealth, or his New Jersey home.
“We call him Dr. Oz, Doc Hollywood, or sometimes just ‘weirdo who hawks phony diet pills on TV,’” Fetterman tweeted last week.
In one viral stunt, the Democrat paid reality-show personality Polizzi $395 via the video-messaging site Cameo to record a clip in which she wishes Oz “best of luck” on his move to Pennsylvania. “Don’t worry, because you’ll be back in Jersey soon. This is all temporary.”
That was followed by a video from another New Jersey legend — “Sopranos” actor and E Street Band guitarist Van Zandt — urging Oz to “come on back to Jersey where you belong.”
Jennifer Mercieca, who studies political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, said Fetterman is trying to “weirdify” Oz.
“What he’s doing is showing how inauthentic Oz is,” she said. “He’s not from here, he’s a tourist.”
But landing those punches may only help Fetterman so much. Pennsylvania Republican strategist Vince Galko said concerns that Oz is a carpetbagger won’t be as important as the economy and crime when it comes time to vote.
“Carpetbagging never really rings the bell people think it does,” Galko said. “It’s an issue, but it’s not that big of an issue. Ultimately, people are going to vote on their pocketbooks.”
The Oz campaign has not let Fetterman’s online jabs go unanswered. It has issued a daily “John Fetterman Basement Tracker” and released a video last month purporting to welcome him back to the campaign.
“I’m glad Fetterman’s healthy so we can worry less about his heart and his hoodie, and more about the crazy, leftist ideas in his head,” Oz said in the video, in which he is seen jogging.
At the same time, Oz has been working “under the radar” to raise money and put himself in a position to win in November, Galko said.
Oz is also working to mend fences in his own party after a bruising primary that saw him edge out former Bridgewater Associates Chief Executive David McCormick by just 951 votes after a recount. McCormick and his allies spent millions of dollars on ads attacking Oz and calling him a “Hollywood liberal” who flip-flopped on gun control and other issues.
That contentious primary and Fetterman’s onslaught have left Oz with a serious enthusiasm gap. Only 35% of Oz supporters back him enthusiastically, and 45% say they support him only reluctantly, according to the Fox News poll. For Fetterman, 68% of his support is enthusiastic and only 18% say they have reservations.
Still, it’s Oz who’s had control of the ground war for the past two months. His team says the former surgeon has made more than 120 general election campaign stops and traveled 2,463 miles in July alone while Fetterman was recuperating.
“John Fetterman has been hiding in his basement for over 80 days avoiding having to publicly answer for his radical, liberal views,” Oz campaign spokesperson Brittany Yanick said in a statement.
The Fetterman campaign shrugs off the criticism.
“It’s a little indifferent and a little lazy on their end. I don’t think it’s really sticking,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello. “There’s an old saying something like, ‘You don’t want to meet the enemy on their battlefield,’ and I feel like that’s what they’re trying to do. So we’re happy to go back and forth with them on Twitter. I think the engagement speaks for itself.”
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