Republicans spar in Alabama Senate debate over Trump’s endorsement of incumbent

The two Republicans competing in Alabama’s upcoming Senate runoff sparred over President Trump’s endorsement in the race of the establishment-favored incumbent over the Christian-conservative outsider, one night before the president's planned visit to the state.

During a televised debate in Montgomery on Thursday evening, appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange repeatedly boasted that the president, who is traveling to Alabama on Friday to boost support for his campaign, endorsed him over his opponent.

“I know you may get tired of hearing this -- and you may resent that the president is my friend and is supporting me in this race -- but I think it’s a good thing that the president of the United States has a personal relationship with the junior senator from Alabama,” Strange told his rival, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.

Despite Trump’s endorsement, some of the president’s usual allies, including former senior adviser Steve Bannon, are supporting Moore. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headlined a post-debate rally for Moore after the debate.

Moore has been polling ahead of Strange, who is favored by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The runoff takes place Tuesday.

During Thursday’s debate, Moore questioned Trump’s endorsement of Strange and mocked his opponent for continuously bringing up the endorsement throughout the night.

“I can’t tell you what the president thinks,” Moore said. “I can’t tell you every move he makes, when he goes to the bathroom, when he doesn’t – like my opponent.”

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, left, listens to Sen. Luther Strange, right, during a debate on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, left, listens to Sen. Luther Strange, right, during a debate on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala.  (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Moore and Strange finished atop a crowded field in the initial August vote for the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Moore, the “Ten Commandments judge” beloved by his Christian conservative supporters, is famous for having been removed twice from his position on Alabama’s Supreme Court.

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On Thursday, Moore said he wanted to see “virtue and morality returned to our country” as he railed against “transgender troops in our bathrooms.”

“Our foundation has been shaken. Crime, corruption, immorality, abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion sweep our land,” he said. “When we become one nation under God again, when liberty and justice for all reigns across our land, we will be truly good again.”

Strange, the former attorney general in Alabama, was temporarily appointed to the seat in April after Sessions joined the Trump administration.

Moore hit Strange, a former state attorney general, for his past career as a lobbyist. He also questioned the circumstances of Strange’s appointment, pointing out how Strange’s office was investigating former Gov. Robert Bentley before the governor made him senator. Bentley resigned from office earlier this year in scandal.

Moore said Trump was right to campaign against lobbyists during the presidential race, so it didn’t make sense that he’d back Strange.

“You don’t get rid of lobbyists in the swamp by sending them to the United States Senate,” Moore said. “This is pure hypocrisy in this race.”

Both candidates agreed to debate Thursday without a moderator or questions. Only a time-keeper was allowed.

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For his part, Strange used every opportunity during the debate to discuss his relationship with Trump.

“The president supports me,” Strange said. “If you have not followed the president on Twitter, I urge you to do so. He just tweeted a great tweet out about his enthusiastic support for me and my campaign.”

In recent days, the president has previewed his visit to Huntsville on Friday for Strange.

“Looking forward to Friday night in the Great State of Alabama. I am supporting ‘Big’ Luther Strange because he was so loyal & helpful to me!” Trump tweeted this week.

The winner of the GOP runoff will face Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration who was endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has announced plans to campaign for Jones in Alabama in October.

Alabama hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in more than 20 years.