Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate boasts of Trump endorsement in debate

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, left, listens to Sen. Luther Strange, right, during a debate on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala.

Brynn Anderson / AP

Last Updated Sep 22, 2017 6:38 PM EDT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama Sen. Luther Strange and challenger Roy Moore on Thursday night traded jabs in a contentious debate, as they sought to sway voters ahead of the state's closely watched U.S. Senate primary runoff. 

Strange has the backing of President Trump -- who hold a rally for Strange on Friday in Hunstville, Ala. Vice President Mike Pence will campaign for Strange on Monday. 

"Who does the President support? The president supports me," Strange said. Mr. Trump fired off a tweet in support of Strange as the debate began, saying that Strange would be great in Washington. 

 At one point, Strange said Mr. Trump "called me last night and said how are things going?"

Politeness was quickly abandoned in the moderator-free debate, as the two Republicans swapped barbs for more than an hour over Strange's appointment to the Senate seat, Moore's knowledge on federal issues and the millions of dollars being spent in the high-stakes race.

The winner of next Tuesday's GOP runoff will face Democrat Doug Jones in a December election to serve out the rest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' term, ending in January 2021.

Strange, the state's former attorney general who was appointed to Sessions' former seat in February, is trying to fend off a challenge from Moore, a darling of evangelical voters after being twice removed as a state chief justice upon taking losing stances against gay marriage and in favor of the public display of the Ten Commandments.

In addition to Mr. Trump's endorsement, Strange has received millions of dollars in donations from allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Moore is supported by a number of anti-establishment forces, including former Mr. Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon as well as the Great America Alliance, an advocacy group that supports Mr. Trump. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was headlining a Thursday night rally for Moore.

During the debate, Strange tried to distinguish himself as the more knowledgeable and accomplished candidate, referring to his work as senator and as attorney general, when he sued the Obama administration over clean power rules and other matters.

Moore fired back that the "elitist Washington establishment" was spending millions of dollars to try to secure the race for Strange while refusing to enact Mr. Trump's agenda.

Moore took aim at Strange's background as a federal lobbyist, a fact that he said was at odds with Strange's claim that he wants to "clean up the swamp."

"You don't get rid of lobbyists in the swamp by sending them to the United States Senate," said Moore.

Moore criticized Strange for accepting the office from a scandal-plagued governor at a time when his office was in charge of corruption investigations. The former chief justice said Strange had been vague when asked whether his office had opened a direct investigation into then-Gov. Robert Bentley when Bentley appointed Strange to the U.S. Senate.

"What's the truth?" Moore asked from the stage.

Strange did not answer Moore's question in his rebuttal time, but has said there was nothing inappropriate with the appointment. Bentley later resigned after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation.

Tickets to the debate were split evenly between the two campaigns. Moore's supporters ignored the request to limit applause, breaking out in loud cheers. Strange's devotees soon followed suit.

As Strange repeatedly mentioned Mr. Trump, Moore quipped that he wasn't running against Mr. Trump, but rather Strange.

Strange said Moore's supporters look like the White House "unemployment line," an apparent reference to Moore's support from past Trump advisers such as Bannon.