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A Week To Go, GOP Runoff In Alabama Gets Nastier By The Day


Republican Party infighting is on full display in Alabama where a GOP runoff for a U.S. Senate seat is getting nastier by the day. President Trump is backing Luther Strange, who was appointed after Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. But polls show Strange running behind the other candidate, Judge Roy Moore. Now, a week before the election, both candidates are trying to distance themselves from political elites. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Watching the Alabama Senate runoff is like watching a swamp-creature double feature.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Forty-year politician Roy Moore in the Montgomery swamp.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Drain the swamp. Send McConnell a message. Send them all a message. Roy Moore...

ELLIOTT: Both candidates are trying to sink the other deep into the muck in a contest that's drawing battle lines, suggesting what's to come in Republican primaries across the country. Senator Luther Strange is getting serious financial backing from GOP power brokers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. President Trump has endorsed him and is set to stump for Strange in Alabama on Friday.

On the other side, Trump's former adviser Steve Bannon is backing the outsider candidate, Judge Roy Moore, as are other conservative groups aligned with Trump. Moore was twice removed as chief justice of Alabama for defying federal courts - once for displaying a giant Ten Commandments monument at the state judicial building, and once re-elected for rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling. His Senate campaign echoes the religious, conservative message that's fueled his rise in Alabama.


ROY MOORE: It's about the elimination of the acknowledgement of God in our society.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Right, right.

MOORE: And without that God, we have no rights.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's right.

ELLIOTT: In the Senate race, he's also railing against the political elite. At this campaign rally in Huntsville over the weekend, he accused McConnell of trying to buy the race.


MOORE: The people of Alabama know what's happening in Washington, and they won't stand for it. They won't stand for their vote to be blocked and paid for so that...

ELLIOTT: Moore has picked up endorsements from Mike Huckabee, Chuck Norris, the head of the House Freedom Caucus and the patriarch of the "Duck Dynasty" reality TV series. Moore was the top vote-getter in the crowded Republican primary last month. Now Strange is playing catch-up.


LUTHER STRANGE: We're all mad at Washington politicians who side with the liberal media to stop our president.

ELLIOTT: Back home in Alabama on Saturday, Strange visited with fans at a college football game and stopped by McCoy Outdoors, a sporting goods shop in Mobile.

STRANGE: Well, this is nice.

ELLIOTT: At the gun counter, he tests which models fit his grip. Strange is 6'9" and tells customers he's fighting to protect the Second Amendment with a bill changing the rules on silencers.

STRANGE: I'm all for suppressors.


STRANGE: I'm Luther Strange, senator.

STEVEN POINTER: Hey, there, Steven Pointer (ph)...

CHAD MEYER: Chad Meyer.

STRANGE: I'm sponsoring some legislation to make it easier for you to get a suppressor, and that's what I've got the NRA's endorsement partly in...

ELLIOTT: Strange says he's the candidate who will push President Trump's agenda.


STRANGE: You can put Mitch McConnell aside. You can make him a symbol all you want. The real, relevant fact here in Alabama is that President Trump supports me.

ELLIOTT: That's what matters to Gene Daniels, here to sell a gun.

GENE DANIELS: Well, since Trump likes him, I kind of like him too.

ELLIOTT: Others say they don't think Roy Moore is qualified. He's been criticized for not having a deep understanding of policy matters. Republican voter Richard Murray of Mobile says he'll vote for Strange.

RICHARD MURRAY: Roy Moore more cannot help us in Alabama. He'll help Roy Moore. And he'd have fun running around and doing what he's always done, being someone that's an outsider - you know, playing to himself. But that's not what we need in Alabama.

ELLIOTT: As Republicans here choose between the outsider and the establishment, a Democrat is waiting in the wings for the December general election.

DOUG JONES: I think I can pick off either one of them.

ELLIOTT: Doug Jones is a former U.S. attorney from Birmingham best known for prosecuting Klan church bombers. He sees an opening with the Republican divide.

JONES: The Republican Party today in Alabama is very similar to the Democratic Party of old. It is just a conglomeration of factions that don't like each other, and so I think there's going to be an opportunity in a special election.

ELLIOTT: A long shot, though, where Democrats haven't won statewide office since 2008. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mobile, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE THE ROBOTS' "GLOBAL WARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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