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Trump stumps for U.S. Senator Luther Strange ahead of Alabama runoff

President tells Huntsville crowd that his endorsement of Strange might turn out to be a “mistake” if he loses

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (CFP) — President Donald Trump put his power and prestige directly on the line by traveling to Alabama to campaign for U.S. Senator Luther Strange, who is locked in bruising GOP primary runoff against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Trump and Strange onstage in Huntsville (Photo: Twitter)

But addressing Strange’s supporters in Huntsville just four days before Alabama Republicans make their decision, Trump conceded that his endorsement of Strange might turn out to be a mistake should the senator lose — and that he would campaign “like hell” for Moore if the challenger wins the September 26 vote.

“I’m taking a big risk, because if he doesn’t make it, they’re going to go after me,” Trump said, a reference to the likely media reaction if Moore wins.

“If Luther doesn’t win, they’re not going to say we picked up 25 points in a very short period of time. They’re going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump,'” he said.

However, Trump also said that he thought a Moore victory in the primary could put the seat Alabama seat in play in November, in a state where Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in 25 years.

“Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election,” Trump said. “Moore is going to have a hard time winning.”

The Democratic nominee is Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor from Birmingham, whose uphill task in deep red Alabama might be less uphill against someone with Moore’s controversial past, which includes being ousted twice from his chief justice post for defying federal court rulings.

Both Strange and Moore have cast themselves as champions of the president’s agenda, in a state where Trump remains popular. But it was Strange who earned a formal endorsement from Trump just a week before the first round of voting in August, which Moore won.

Since then, Moore has been endorsed by the third place finisher, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, and received support from Breitbart News, the website run by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also traveled to Alabama to campaign with Moore.

In addition to Trump, Strange has received support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies, who have dumped millions into the race on his behalf.

The battle in Alabama has become a proxy war between the Senate GOP leaders and their intra-party critics, who have embraced the Moore candidacy as a way of giving McConnell a black eye — and possibly saddling him with a Republican caucus member who has publicly and repeatedly called for his ouster.

The twist in the Alabama race is that Trump is on the side of the GOP establishment, rather than Moore, the insurgent outsider who has said he believes God put Trump in the White House.

Five statewide polls taken since the first round of primary voting in August have shown Moore with a lead beyond the statistical margin of error; in three others, the margin between the candidates was not large enough to draw inferences about the state of the race.

The latest poll, a September 18 survey from JMC Analytics, showed an inconclusive margin between the candidates. However, that was a marked shift from the same poll in August, which had Moore with a 19-point lead over Strange.

About 13 percent of voters polled in the survey said they were still undecided.

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

Strange, 64, was appointed to the Senate in February by former Governor Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions was named as Trump’s attorney general.

At the time, Strange was Alabama’s attorney general, and his office had been involved in investigating the governor’s conduct. Bentley also handed Strange another gift, delaying a special election to permanently fill the Senate seat until November 2018, which would have given Strange nearly two years of incumbency before he had to face voters.

But after a sex scandal forced Bentley from office, new Alabama Governor Kay Ivey reversed course and ordered a special election.

The circumstances of Strange’s appointment, and the perception that it might have been the result of a political deal with the disgraced Bentley, have dogged the senator throughout the campaign, even though he has strongly denied any impropriety and no evidence of a corrupt bargain has surfaced.

Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore

Moore, 70, first gained national notoriety as a local judge in 1995 after battling the ACLU over his practice of opening court sessions with a prayer and hanging the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

He parlayed that prominence into election as chief justice in 2000 but was forced out in 2003 after he had a display of the Ten Commandments installed in the rotunda of the state judicial building and then defied a federal judge’s order to remove it.

Moore was once again elected chief justice in 2012, but in 2016, he was suspended by a judicial disciplinary panel for the rest of his term for ethics violations after urging local officials to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

After losing an appeal of his suspension, Moore resigned from the Supreme Court to run for the Senate.

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