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Trump assures voters Strange is a stronger Senate candidate

Donald Trump Donald Trump | Photo: AP.

September 23, 2017 11:56 AM

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — President Donald Trump tried to convince Alabama conservatives Friday that the establishment choice in a Republican runoff for Senate shares their revulsion of Washington politics, declaring Sen. Luther Strange is a "swamp" fighter without close ties to GOP leaders.

Before thousands of cheering fans in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump acknowledged that he was putting his political neck on the line for Strange, who was appointed in February to temporarily fill the seat that opened up when Jeff Sessions became attorney general. Trump said he hadn't wanted to get involved in a primary race, but he praised Strange's loyalty and said he had wrongly been branded an establishment insider.

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Trump argued that as a Senate newcomer Strange barely knew Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying: "Luther is a tough, tough cookie. He doesn't deal with and kowtow to anybody."

The presidential push came as Strange — who has been heavily supported by a super political action committee tied to McConnell — remains locked in a tight race against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a jurist known for opposing gay marriage and pushing unsuccessfully for the public display of the Ten Commandments. The runoff vote will be held Tuesday, with the winner facing Democrat Doug Jones in December.

In a freewheeling campaign speech punctuated by chanting from the crowd, Trump said he appreciated Strange's support during the push to overhaul President Barack Obama's health care law and said Strange would better advance the Trump agenda. He also insisted he was taking a political risk, saying if Strange loses, the media are "going to go after me."

Trump argued Moore will have a harder time winning the general election against Jones, but still promised to campaign "like hell" for Moore if he wins.

Moore is favored by many of Trump's supporters and allies, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who headlined a rally for Moore Thursday night, where she said Moore was best qualified to bring change to Washington.

Moore also appears to have the support of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — though a confidant insisted his praise wasn't an endorsement.

In a statement released by Moore's campaign, Carson called the former judge a "fine man of proven character and integrity" who "reflects the Judeo-Christian values that were so important to the establishment of our country."

But Armstrong Williams insisted the praise was "not an endorsement" and said Carson was "just showing support for his friend."

While Trump emphasized his support for Strange, his hour-plus speech also delved into his White House agenda, his recent appearance at the United Nations General Assembly as well as many of his campaign themes.

He lashed out at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling him a "madman." He criticized Sen. John McCain for opposing Republican efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's health care law. He said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. He discussed his long-promised border wall, called allegations of Russian election meddling a "hoax," and relived his 2016 general election victory at length.

Trump's visit was intended to reward Strange's loyalty, but also came at the urging of top Republicans, who worry Moore would be a disruptive figure in the Senate, or might even lose to Democrat Doug Jones.

Still, Alabama residents attending the Friday night rally were united in support of Trump, but divided over who should be the state's next senator. And for some Alabama Republicans, the support of a president they adore wasn't enough to dissuade them from supporting Moore.

"Vote for Roy Moore, a man of God," Cal Zastrow repeated to the supporters filing into the Von Braun Civic Center, often getting a thumbs up or enthusiastic "I am" in reply.

One of those was Laura Skipper. She attended rallies in support of Moore in 2003 when he was removed as Alabama chief justice.

"I am a huge supporter of President Trump. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the president, but I am a Moore supporter. I love what he stands for," Skipper said.

___

AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.

Credits

By CATHERINE LUCEY and KIM CHANDLER

(Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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