It was an unusual format for a political debate, at least for modern times. Two candidates on a stage with no moderator or questions from journalists, only a timekeeper. But there was plenty of old-fashioned political rhetoric.
In what was styled as a “Lincoln-Douglas debate,” incumbent U.S. Sen. Luther Strange and challenger Roy Moore, former chief justice of Alabama, battled for a little more than an hour before a crowd at the Retirement Systems of Alabama Activities Center in downtown Montgomery. The debate was streamed live by several TV and radio stations.
While Illinois Senate candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated the issues of the 19th century for three hours at a time, Strange and Moore went after each other in five-minute rounds. But with no moderator, the two men were free to take whatever shots at each other that they pleased.
And they did just that, with Moore attacking Strange on a host of issues, including his handling as Alabama’s attorney general of investigations into wrongdoing by then-Gov. Robert Bentley; long career as a Washington-based lobbyist; ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky; and involvement in a company that helps foreigners secure U.S. visas through the EB-5 program, which allows entry by foreign nationals with significant money to invest in business.
Strange largely deflected or ignored Moore’s attacks, preferring instead to capitalize on the popularity of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence with Alabama voters. At least a dozen times, Strange reminded listeners that Trump had endorsed Strange over Moore in the runoff.
In fact, Trump is in Huntsville on Friday stumping for Strange, while Sarah Palin appeared at a rally for Moore after the debate.
Strange set the tone early. “I don’t think there’s going to be any question at the end of this debate about who’s most qualified to help the president make America great again,” he said, mentioning Trump’s campaign slogan. “Who does he (Trump) support? He supports me.”
Even Strange realized how much he was mentioning his ties to Trump. “You may get tired of hearing that,” he joked about 20 minutes into the debate.
Strange also rebuffed Moore’s accusation that McConnell manipulated Trump into supporting him. “To suggest that the president of the United States, the head of the free world, a man who has changed the world, is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the president,” Strange said. “Many of those supporting you look like the unemployment line at the White House.”
Strange also emphasized his record as the state’s top prosecutor and how he fought to get more money for the state from a settlement by BP in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that damaged Alabama’s Gulf Coast beaches.
“That brought more than a billion dollars into the state’s general fund, money we greatly needed,” he said.
Strange, who was appointed by Bentley to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was picked by Trump to be U.S. attorney general, also talked about working to get Hyundai to build an automobile factory just south of Montgomery. Strange mentioned, in a roundabout way, that he worked for Hyundai as a lobbyist on the project.
Draining the Swamp
Moore quickly countered by reminding voters that Strange had been a lobbyist for 23 years. Referring to a sheaf of hand-written notes on yellow legal paper, Moore noted, “He (Strange) earned $6.674 million during the nine-year period from his lobbying disclosure form from 1999 to 2008 … . He maintained a half-million-dollar condo at 801 Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks away from the White House.
“One of the first things President Trump said was that he wanted to get rid of lobbyists by draining the swamp. I tell you, you don’t get rid of lobbyists by sending them to the Senate,” Moore added.
Moore remained on the attack for most of the night, though he did sometimes trip up on phrases and acronyms, usually while sorting through his notes. In particular, in an early comment Moore referred to his opposition to “transistor troops,” rather than transgender troops. Later in the debate, though, he correctly called them transgender and reiterated his opposition to allowing them in the military. At other times, Moore — who is often noted for reciting historical documents from memory — was at his rhetorical best when moving away from his notes.
Moore also mentioned several times his service in the armed forces and his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he contrasted it with Strange’s lack of military experience.
Though Strange has served in the Senate only since February, the brevity of his tenure didn’t stop him from emphasizing his incumbency, as well as his “close personal relationship” with the president.
“I was there at 3 a.m. when McCain voted thumbs down,” Strange said, referring to a late-night vote against a bill to repeal Obamacare by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, which led to the defeat of the measure. Strange voted in favor.
Moore also attacked on what he termed a conflict of interest that Strange may have on immigration matters Moore pointed out his minority ownership in a company called Summit LLC. A Tuesday report by Huntsville television station WHNT revealed that Strange owns 16 percent of the company, which helps foreigners secure EB-5 visas in return for investing large amounts of money, usually in the millions, in American businesses.
The WHNT report states that Strange made $150,000 from a project that recruited 50 foreign investors for a $25 million expansion project at what was then called Princeton Baptist Medical Center in west Birmingham, now called Brookwood Baptist Princeton.
Moore also reviewed his opposition to legislation and regulations that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2014 and rescinded by Trump earlier this month. Moore instead supports the Raise Act, which would allow merit-based immigration; Trump is also a supporter.
Thursday’s debate was the only time the two candidates will face each other before GOP voters go to the polls Tuesday. A debate using a more conventional format with a moderator had been scheduled for earlier in the week, to be sponsored by the Alabama Policy Institute conservative think tank. But Moore pulled out abruptly after he found out that the moderator also was listed as the treasurer of the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee run by McConnell that has run millions of dollars in ads attacking Moore.
After Strange blasted Moore for walking away from that debate, Moore countered by challenging Strange to a “mano a mano” format with only the two candidates and a timekeeper. After much negotiation, that format was adopted. The debate was not broadcast on television, but it was streamed live online by TV and radio stations.
The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will face Democrat nominee Doug Jones in the general election on Dec. 12.