Thursday night’s debate in the Alabama Senate GOP primary runoff served to deepen the rift between Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe biggest political upsets of the decade State ‘certificate of need’ laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore as the two sparred over who would be the better steward of President Trump’s agenda and traded a fair share of personal barbs.
The two candidates took the stage in Huntsville with a unique set of rules: The debate had no moderator, but instead the two candidates traded off five-minute soliloquies responding to each other and pushing their own message. That allowed Strange to dictate the terms of the debate, setting the informal topic for the 10-minute set and calling on Moore to defend himself. Strange leaned heavily on Trump’s endorsement — each segment, he made sure to remind the crowd about his backing from Trump or Vice President Pence. “The president had a choice and he picked me,” Strange said, repeatedly framing a vote for him as a vote for the president’s agenda. ADVERTISEMENT “Are we going to support the president? Are we going to make America great again? Are we going to put people in there that he wants that will do the hard work to get things done?” But Moore needled his opponent for his fixation on the endorsement, accusing him of having little more to offer than the president’s support. “I’m certainly glad I’m not running against the president of the United States. I’m glad I’m not running against the vice president of the United States. I can’t tell you every move he makes, when he goes to the bathroom, like my opponent,” Moore said to chuckles from the crowd. In a forceful moment toward the end of the debate, Moore argued that Trump only endorsed Strange because he has been misled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.), a common refrain of Moore’s supporters. “President Trump is being cut off in his office, being redirected by people like McConnell who do not support his agenda,” Moore said. “But there is a God, and there is a God in heaven that is in this campaign. We look forward to Sept. 26, and the answer is coming soon.” Strange shot back forcefully, undercutting Moore’s support from former White House staffers as indicative of his distance from the president. “With all due respect, I don’t think God is just on your side. I don’t think God is just on my side. I think God is on both of our sides, I think he is on the president’s side. One thing I do know — the president is on my side,” Strange said. “To suggest the president of the United States, the head of the free world, a man who is changing the world, is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the president … many of the people who are supporting you look like the unemployment line at the White House. There’s a reason for that — the president is his own man.” Moore later walked back his comments, arguing he meant that God would be with him no matter how the race turned out. It is no surprise the topic of Trump’s support dominated the debate, as it’s been one of the prevailing narratives in the race. The two also locked horns at times over the issues, including when Strange sought to criticize Moore for stumbling when asked about the controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era program that delays deportations for certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors. Trump has announced he will phase the program out over six months, giving Congress a window to craft a legislative replacement. “My opponent was asked about DACA, [Attorney General] Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe, Rosenstein spar over Russia probe Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Rosenstein defends Mueller appointment, role on surveillance warrants MORE’s number one signature issue. … He didn’t know what it was. The president notices that — that’s why he endorsed me,” Strange said. Moore parried that attack by arguing that Strange is weak on illegal immigration. The former judge believes that the U.S. should send the military to the border instead of waiting to construct a border wall, which he also supports. “DREAMer — development, relief, education of alien minors — there’s no such thing as a DREAMer,” Moore said, referring to the DREAM Act, legislation first introduced in 2001 that provided many of the protections of DACA. “You know why? It was never passed by Congress.” Moore also took aim at Strange’s record, pillorying him as a career lobbyist and blasting him as part of the Washington establishment thanks to his support from McConnell, whose allied super PAC has blanketed the state with negative ads. He also chided Strange for accepting a temporary appointment to the Senate from then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who later resigned after pleading guilty to charges related to an extramarital affair. When he asked Strange, who was the state’s attorney general when the Bentley scandal began, to explain why he accepted the appointment from a man he was said to have been investigating, Strange ignored the question. Thursday’s debate marked the first and only head-to-head match-up between the two men before Tuesday’s runoff election. In the interim, Trump will campaign in Alabama on behalf of Strange on Friday, while Pence will do so on Tuesday. Moore has held the edge in polling throughout the runoff thanks in no small part to a strong cadre of supporters he’s cultivated throughout his controversial career. But Strange’s team is banking on a better-funded organization and a boost from the White House to lead him to victory on Tuesday.
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