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GOP Senate candidates come out swinging in Alabama debate

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sen. Luther Strange and former state Chief Justice Roy Moore squared off in a heated debate Thursday evening just days before a close Republican primary runoff for U.S. Senate in this deep-red state.

For much of the beginning of the debate, the candidates stuck to two themes. Again and again Strange pointed out that he had the support of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“The president supports me,” Strange said in his opening remarks as he stressed how, in a short time, he has become close with Trump. “Why would he do that? Because we’ve developed a close personal friendship.”

Moore, meanwhile, refrained from attacking Trump directly but bashed Strange as a career lobbyist and a product of insiders and corruption in Washington.

“My entire political career has been serving the state of Alabama,” Moore said. “My opponent has been a professional lobbyist for over 20 years.”

And as Strange tried to leave no air between him and the president, Moore worked to highlight their differences. The judge noted that while he himself has always opposed abolishing the Senate filibuster, Strange, after signing a letter opposing getting rid of it, reversed course. Moore noted that Trump opposes “the 60-vote rule” — the threshold needed to cut off debate and proceed to a vote.

So why did Strange switch positions? Moore asked rhetorically. “He’ll do anything to get this job, and that’s called lack of character,” he said, answering his own question.

Both public and private polls show a tightening race, though most have Moore leading slightly. The debate also comes as top surrogates for the two candidates swoop in to give each a last-minute boost.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was set to appear with Moore in a rally on Thursday after the debate. Trump is scheduled to hold a rally for Strange on Friday, and Pence plans to campaign for the senator on Monday.

Moore is leading in the contest despite millions spent by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.), to boost Strange’s chances. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and a number of other Senate Republicans have also taken steps to help Strange.

But Moore has remained a competitive opponent of Strange, and over the past two weeks the former judge and firebrand conservative has methodically rolled out endorsements from members of Congress.

Further complicating the divide between Strange and Moore is Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist now running Breitbart News, who has actively endorsed the former judge and stayed in contact with him during the runoff. Moore has also been endorsed by conservative grass-roots favorites like Palin and Phil Robertson, star of the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty.”

As a result, the runoff has become a sort of proxy war between competing factions of the Republican Party. The Senate seat is likely to stay in GOP hands, but Moore’s winning the primary on Tuesday would energize anti-incumbent Republicans. Allies of McConnell argue that if Strange wins, it will show lockstep support among Trump supporters for Senate leadership.

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