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Fob James Wins Alabama Runoff

Gov. Fob James, who has championed school prayer with the kind of states' rights fervor not heard in the South since the issue was race, easily won a Republican primary runoff Tuesday against a businessman who accused him of embarrassing Alabama.

After a bitter name-calling campaign between James and Winton Blount, Democrats played a big role in the runoff, which was open to anyone who voted in the June 2 primary. Although many blacks casting the first GOP ballots of their lives voted for Blount, crossover Democrats in rural areas gave James a big boost.

"We campaigned awfully hard in all the counties," James said as his celebration began in a Montgomery hotel suite. "I'm very humbled."

With 93 percent of precincts reporting, James had 253,965 votes, or 56 percent, while Blount had 200,200 votes, or 44 percent.

James, 63, drew endorsements from national leaders of the religious right for his outspoken defense of teacher-led prayer in school and the display of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom. Blount, 55, cast James as a divisive figure who has brought ridicule on Alabama with extremist rhetoric.

"I believe a governor should be widely known for his achievements instead of his antics," Blount said.

James faces Democratic Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman in the fall.

James was first elected as a Democrat in 1978 but was unable to win again until he switched to the GOP in 1994. He was forced into the runoff when he fell short of a majority in the primary. He got 48 percent to Blount's 41 percent.

James has vowed to disregard Supreme Court orders on issues such as school prayer; threatened to call out the National Guard to defend a Ten Commandments display in a judge's courtroom; argued that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states in matters such as freedom of speech and religion; and became the only governor ever to withdraw from the National Governors Association.

Critics of James said his tirades against the federal government raised echoes of the states' rights clamor of the segregationist era, when George Wallace dominated Alabama politics. They said it was time for Alabama to reject its history of electing people they regard as rubes, such as James, Wallace and preacher-farmer Guy Hunt, who was ousted on an ethics conviction.

In an editorial, The Huntsville Times said: "The people of Alabama, even the devoutly religious, did not necessarily elect this man to drag the entire state into ridicule and penury in support of ideas that are, at the very least, unusual."

Leaders of the religious right -- including broadcaster James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association -- endorsed James, who hired former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed as a campaign consultant. Reed told ministers that it was part of God's plan that "the eyes of America are going to be on Alabama" during the runoff.

Blount, who owns car dealerships and a plastics company, tried to campaign as a traditional, business-minded Republican but found himself quoting Scripture in campaign ads while accusing the governor of unfairly portraying him as anti-Christian.

Early on, the runoff campaign took a nasty turn. Blount said Alabama doesn't need a governor "dancing around a stage like a monkey" a reference to James' 1995 performance in front of state school officials in which he poked fun at evolutionary theory in textbooks by mimicking the pictures of a slump-shouldered ape turning into an upright human.

James responded to Blount's remark by saying: "If I dance like a monkey, then he must dance like a fat monkey."

At another point, Alabama first lady Bobbie James called Blount "a big, fat sissy."

Karen Cartee, a University of Alabama political communications analyst, described the campaign as pathetic.

"Once again, Alabama has managed to avoid any of the true issues facing the state and its people education, transportation, welfare, health care, you name it," Ms. Cartee said.

"We just keep sinking further and further behind other Southern states. The only thing you can say is this whole primary and runoff have been a trivial mess. When you've got the governor of the state debating evolution and the main candidates calling each other monkeys, it is truly a sad state of affairs."

For decades, the Republican primary was a lackluster affair, while the Democratic race was full of fireworks and the party's nomination was tantamount to victory in November. Now the Republicans are making more noise.

"We will get through this little bickering," state GOP Chairman Roger McConnell said. "This has been great for the Republican Party."

And this fall, he said, the GOP will carry on the same kind of fight against Siegelman, a lawyer who advocates a lottery to provide money for school computers, programs for pre-schoolers and college scholarships.

"For him to use it as a gimmick, to wrap it around education, is next to adultery," McConnell said.

Written by Bill Poovey
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