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Phillip Tutor: Tuberville needs Crimson Tide fans. Really, he does.

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Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville (left).

These, if we believe what we’re being told about Alabama’s 2020 Senate election, are the most popular options for Republicans:

(1.) Hope Alabama football fans vote for a former Auburn coach.

(2.) Ask Alabama’s right-leaning Christians to vote for an irredeemable defrocked judge who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct and is fond of riding a horse named Sassy. 

(3.) Or, pray.

Praying for political outcomes is dangerous, given that God is neither Republican nor Democrat and isn’t fond of abortion. If I were a Republican and prone to pray, I’d look skyward and ask for the return of Jeff Sessions, who’s still recovering from his public beatdown at the hands of President Trump. Sessions is a xenophobic immigration hawk who can’t be trusted, but at least he’s the devil we know.

Roy Moore, Sassy’s rider, is indeed a devil. And despite his recent entrance into the GOP’s crowded Senate field, latest polling data show him a distant third behind Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn football coach, and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Mobile, and barely ahead of John Merrill, the Alabama secretary of state whose candidacy just hatched. My guess is that Sassy, if she were running, would be more popular.

And that is what this is about — popularity, not GOP policies or Alabama politics. Given that Americans elected a real estate conman from Queens as president — a conman Alabamians overwhelmingly supported, and still do — there’s no reason to believe Republicans won’t consider a former football coach as the candidate best suited to unseat U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, the Birmingham Democrat and civil rights legal icon considered to be the Senate’s most vulnerable member, which he is.

Tuberville’s unlikely candidacy, though, is mystifying — or so I thought. (He was linked to an assistant coaching job at the University of Miami just seven months ago.) But his surprisingly strong showing in a report from Cygnal, a Montgomery-based polling and consulting firm, has flipped that script, for now.

Cygnal’s pollsters asked Alabama Republicans, “If the Republican primary election for U.S. Senate was held today, and you had to make a choice, who would you vote for from the following list of candidates?”

Tuberville, at 29.3 percent, finished first. Byrne (21.4) followed, as did Moore (13.0) and Merrill (11.8). Tuberville has never served in office, never run for office — he briefly considered a gubernatorial bid — and doesn’t come from the usual political proving grounds of law or business. His college degree, from Southern Arkansas in 1976, is in physical education — a fine degree for coaches, but not necessarily training for congressional aspirees.

Tuberville clearly is no Tom Osborne, but who is? The Nebraska football legend won three national championships, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and served three terms in Congress. He holds three degrees: a bachelor’s in history and a master’s and Ph.D. in educational psychology. Then there’s current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who majored in political science, took the admissions test for the CIA and worked for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign before marrying football. Even his father, an alderman in Massachusetts, had political genes.

At Ole Miss, his pre-Auburn head coaching gig, Tuberville welcomed the nickname “Riverboat Gambler,” an apt moniker for a self-styled Washington outsider who is embracing that image. He also is a hardy supporter of Trump, if that matters to you. 

“I think we need more non-politicians in Washington,” he recently told Dothan’s WDHN. “We’ve got too many people that can’t do anything, and I’m truly an outsider. I know a lot about politics, but I want to take moral Christian values back to Washington.”

And those aforementioned Alabama football fans?

Alabama Republicans, Cygnal reports, are overwhelmingly Crimson Tide fans — 52.7 percent, in fact. Less than a quarter (23.2 percent) of them support Auburn. (Left unexplained is how more than 13 percent of Alabama Republicans said they don’t care about college sports. They must have been inebriated.) 

That delicious nugget of Alabamaism rests at the heart of this fascinating Senate race. The early poll leader and former Auburn coach who beat Alabama six straight times needs support from Republican Crimson Tiders to contend for the nomination. If that isn’t quintessential Alabama, nothing is.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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