The two candidates took the stage in Huntsville with a unique set of rules — the debate had no moderator, but instead, the two candidates traded off five-minute soliloquies responding to each other and pushing their own message. That allowed Strange to dictate the terms of the debate, setting the informal topic for the 10-minute set and calling on Moore to defend himself.
“Are we going to support the president? Are we going to make America great again? Are we going to put people in there that he wants that will do the hard work to get things done?”
But Moore needled his opponent for his fixation on the endorsement, accusing him of having little more to offer than the president’s support.
“I’m certainly glad I’m not running against the President of the United States. I’m glad I’m not running against the Vice President of the United States. I can’t tell you every move he makes, when he goes to the bathroom, like my opponent,” Moore said to chuckles from the crowd.
“President Trump is being cut off in his office, being redirected by people like McConnell who do not support his agenda,” Moore said.
“But there is a God and there is a God in heaven that is in this campaign. We look forward to Sept. 26 and the answer is coming soon.”
Strange shot back forcefully, undercutting Moore’s support from former White House staffers as indicative of his distance from the president.
“With all due respect, I don’t think God is just on your side. I don’t think God is just on my side, I think God is on both of our sides, I think he is on the president’s side. One thing I do know — the president is on my side,” Strange said.
“To suggest the President of the United States, the head of the free world, a man who is changing the world is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the president…many of the people who are supporting you look like the unemployment line at the White House. There’s a reason for that — the president is his own man.”
Moore later walked back his comments, arguing he meant that God would be with him no matter how the race turned out.
It is no surprise the topic of Trump’s support dominated the debate, as it’s been one of the prevailing narratives in the race.
The two also locked horns at times over the issues, including when Strange sought to needle Moore for stumbling when asked about the controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era program that delays deportations for certain undocumented immigrants brought to America illegally as children. Trump has announced he will phase the program out unless Congress agrees on a fix.
Moore parried that attack by arguing that Strange is weak on illegal immigration. The former judge believes that the U.S. should send the military to the border to secure the nation instead of waiting to construct the border wall, which he also supports.
“DREAMer development, relief, education of alien minors — there’s no such thing as a DREAMer,” Moore said, using an acronym for failed legislation to legalize the DACA program.
“You know why? It was never passed by Congress.”
Moore also took aim at Strange’s record, pillorying him as a career lobbyist and blasting him as part of the Washington establishment thanks to his support from McConnell, whose allied super PAC has blanketed the state with negative ads.
He also chided Strange for accepting a temporary appointment to the Senate from then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who later resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to charges related to an alleged affair.
When he asked Strange directly to explain why he accepted the appointment from a man he was said to have been investigating, Strange ignored the question.
Thursday’s debate marked the first and only head-to-head matchup between the two men before Tuesday’s runoff election. In the interim, Trump will campaign in Alabama on behalf of Strange on Friday, while Pence will do so on Tuesday.
Moore has held the edge in polling throughout the runoff thanks in no small part to a strong cadre of supporters he’s cultivated throughout his controversial career. But Strange’s team is banking on a better-funded organization and a boost from the White House to lead him to victory on Tuesday.