HUNTSVILLE — President Donald Trump made the case for a vote for Sen. Luther Strange — and against his opponent Roy Moore — before a crowd of thousands at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville on Friday.
For Trump, the logic was simple: If Strange gets the Republican nomination, he's a better bet to beat Democrat Doug Jones.
“Luther will definitely win,” Trump said. “Roy stands a very good chance of not winning.”
Strange faces Moore, a former state supreme court justice, in a Tuesday runoff for the nomination in this year's unusual special election for Senate.
It's a story that starts with Trump, who appointed his longtime ally, Jeff Sessions, as U.S. attorney general, leaving Sessions’ seat in the Senate open. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange to temporarily fill the seat, causing a ruckus among Bentley's critics, who noted Strange was in charge of investigating accusations against the governor that could have led to his impeachment. Bentley later stepped down after pleading guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges. When new Gov. Kay Ivey declared that a special election for the Senate seat would be held this year, Republican critics of Strange flocked to the race.
After the Aug. 15 primary, only Strange and one of his critics remain. Roy Moore, twice booted off the state's highest court for defying court orders on same-sex marriage and the Ten Commandments, is a social conservative icon here — though he he has more than once failed to parlay his fame into election to a non-judicial office. Strange has flooded the airwaves with ads intended to call attention to Moore's campaign-trail gaffes, but so far, the sitting senator trails Moore in the polls.
Trump's visit Friday, the most visible sign of the president's endorsement of Moore, was meant to change that.
North Korea, the Wall and Clinton
Before making his case for Strange, Trump launched a few verbal projectiles at North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, continuing a war of words that has escalated this week.
“Rocket Man should have been handled a long time ago,” Trump said, using a nickname he applied to Kim in a speech at the U.N.
The North Koreans earlier this week said they were considering a nuclear bomb test somewhere in the ocean. Trump said such a test was unacceptable, in part because of the environmental effects of an explosion. Without going into detail, he repeatedly said North Korea should have been “handled” by earlier administrations.
"This shouldn't be handled now, but I'm going to handle it," Trump said.
Throughout the speech, Trump also hit a number of past applause lines. He criticized the media, calling them “dishonest people,” he promised a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and he got in a dig at his opponent in last year's election, saying that if Hillary Clinton had been elected, "you'd be turning in your rifles." That generated chants of "Lock her up!" from the crowd.
"You've got to speak to Jeff Sessions about that," Trump said.
Trump said his administration is spending “a tremendous amount of money” to build his promised border wall. He said four sample sections of wall were being built, and he said he'd tour them soon. He also said the wall didn't need to cover the entire Mexican-American border because of pre-existing natural barriers.
Trump also took on the National Football League, saying owners should say “get that son of a bitch off the field” any time a player "disrespects our flag" — an apparent reference to players who take a knee during the national anthem. He also said spectators should leave when players do protest.
Strange's red hat
Trump threaded appeals to Alabama voters throughout the speech, at one point calling him "your giant in the Senate." Strange, he said, was one of the few senators who made no demands when Trump asked for support for a bill to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act.
"I said ‘Senator, I need your help,’" he said. “‘I've got to get your vote on health care.’ He said 'You've got it.'"
Trump indicated that he'd push for Moore's election if he did beat Strange in the election. And he said he'd even consider moving to Alabama if he lost an upcoming election and returned to private life.
"I understand the people of Alabama," he said. "I feel like I'm from Alabama, frankly."
Strange himself took the stage before the president, donning a red "Make America Great Again" hat at the podium. His remarks were far shorter than Trump's, which lasted more than an hour.
A vote for Strange, the candidate said would help assure that Trump has the votes to get his agenda passed.
"We'll send a message to the establishment in Washington D.C. that Alabama stands behind its president,” Strange said.
Many in the full house at the 9,000-seat Propst Arena of Von Braun Center seemed eager to see Trump, but that didn't mean they were planning to vote for Strange.
Harvest resident Anthony Libhart said he's still trying to decide.
"I'm trying to give Strange a clean slate," Libhart said. He said he didn't like the way Strange was appointed, but was willing to listen to him and give him a chance. And he wanted to hear the candidate in person.
"If you listen to the advertising, you don't learn anything," he said. "Things get distorted. They get relayed only from a certain perspective."
Others in the crowd said they were disappointed in the ad campaigns on both sides. Peter Grove, from the town of Cloverdale near the Tennessee line, voted for Mo Brooks on Aug. 15. Strange’s ads criticizing Moore were enough to move him to stand outside the stadium with a bicycle bearing pro-Moore signs, one of which referred to "Lucifer Strange."
"Every single commercial coming out of Luther Strange and Mitch McConnell is a lie about Roy Moore," Grove said.
Grove is standing outside Trump/Strange event with Moore sign because he doesn't like Strange ads. pic.twitter.com/lVLnSWLdYV— Tim Lockette (@TLockette_Star) September 22, 2017
Still, Grove acknowledged that he'd vote for Strange in December if the senator wins the primary. Electing a Democrat would be worse, he said.
Strange supporters in the audience, asked the reason for their choice, cited the same reasons Strange has often mentioned in ads: his connection to Trump and his endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
"He's for gun rights," said Joy Hinton of Grant. "He stands up for Trump."