By STEVE PEOPLES AP National Politics Writer
CARLISLE, Pa. — Republican Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz is stepping up his criticism of far-right candidates in Pennsylvania who are gaining traction ahead of Tuesday’s primary election.
After spending much of the campaign steering clear of fellow Republican Senate contender Kathy Barnette, Oz on Saturday said she was out of step with the GOP and would be unable to win the general election in November. In an interview, he took issue with a 2015 tweet from Barnette in which she wrote that “Pedophilia is a Cornerstone of Islam.”
Oz, who would be the nation’s first Muslim senator, described the comments as “disqualifying.”
“It’s reprehensible that she would tweet out something that is defamatory to an entire religion,” Oz told The Associated Press. “This state was based on religious freedom. I’m proud as a Pennsylvanian to uphold those founding beliefs that every faith has its merits.”
The Barnette campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier in the week, Barnette told NBC News that she did not make the statement, which was still live on her Twitter feed on Saturday.
For months, the race for the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat has been an expensive fight between former hedge fund CEO David McCormick and Oz, who have spent millions of dollars attacking each other on television. Each has also faced questions about their ties to Pennsylvania. McCormick grew up in the state, while Oz went to medical school there and was married in Philadelphia.
But in the final days of the Republican primary, a third candidate — Barnette, a conservative commentator who has courted hard-line pro-Trump groups — has emerged. Trump himself has warned that Barnette’s background hasn’t been properly vetted.
With the election just days away, polls show a tight three-way race with a sizable number of undecided voters who could sway the results next week.
Oz has won Trump’s endorsement in the Senate contest, although some Trump supporters continue to question his conservative credentials.
When asked to clarify his views on abortion in the Saturday interview, Oz distanced himself from Trump’s newly minted pick for Pennsylvania governor, Doug Mastriano, a far-right conservative who has called abortion “the No. 1 issue.” In a recent televised debate, Mastriano said he supports banning abortion from conception, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
Oz described himself as “pro-life,” but said he would prefer an abortion ban in Pennsylvania that would include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
“There are times when we disagree with other pro-life advocates,” Oz told the AP. “In my case, those disagreements often come about because, as a doctor, I’ve dealt with issues that threaten the life of the mother.”
Oz saved his most pointed criticism for Barnette, however, echoing Trump’s concerns that her background hasn’t been properly scrutinized. He lashed out at her previous comments on Islam, noting that she also has a history of anti-gay remarks.
“We know so little,” Oz said. “Every time she answers a question, she raises more questions. But I think it’s disqualifying to make Islamophobic and homophobic comments, not just for the general election, but the Republican primary as well.”