MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Sen. Luther Strange and challenger Roy Moore spent Labor Day weekend in a whirl of stump stops at a college football game, a church and a "Sweet Tater" festival trying to rally voters ahead of this month's Republican runoff for the U.S. Senate.
Despite the backing of President Donald Trump and millions of dollars from a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Strange trailed Moore by 25,000 votes in the first round of balloting. Moore, who was twice removed as Alabama chief justice, for his stands against gay marriage and for the courthouse display of the Ten Commandments, has an enthusiastic base among evangelical voters.
Moore rallied his voters over the weekend, urging them to send a message to the Washington establishment that they want change. Strange, with business groups by his side, has emphasized his credentials and begun attacks on Moore's qualifications.
Taking the pulpit for "God and Country Day" at a red brick Baptist church in Montgomery, Moore said the nation has forgotten its Christian roots and criticized court rulings that he said prevented football coaches from praying on the 50-yard line and forced judges to recognize marriage between a "man and a man."
"We're not trembling at the word of God. We're not even respecting where we came from as a nation," Moore said to approving shouts of "Preach it" from the 150-member congregation at Perry Hill Road Baptist Church.
Ricky Segers, who had an American flag tucked inside his Bible, said he will vote for Moore whenever he runs for office. "He's a man of his word. He's a firm believer."
That enthusiasm has given Moore a firm base of support ahead of the runoff.
"Roy Moore voters are going to go to the polls no matter what happens," said Angi Horn Stalnaker, a Republican political consultant who ran two campaigns against Moore.
Strange campaigned Sunday at a "Sweet Tater Festival" in Cullman, 51 miles (82 kilometers) north of Birmingham, before planning to spend Monday at an air show and church barbecue. The former state attorney general, who was appointed to the post in February, is trying to avoid another second-place finish and an abbreviated Senate career.
"My message is I'm a common sense conservative who gets things done. People want results out of Washington. As AG, I had lots of results because I was willing to take on the tough problems. We've just got to take that attitude with Washington," Strange said.
Strange is trying to pick up enough of the 119,787 votes that went to other GOP candidates in the first round of voting, to surpass Moore in the second.
"Turnout is going to be critical," Strange said of the race.
His campaign has begun hitting at Moore's qualifications for Senate, lampooning him as "clueless" for a talk radio appearance where Moore appeared to not know what the DACA, or dreamer, immigration program was for immigrant children brought into the country illegally. Business groups, such as the Business Council of Alabama, have also began to rally around Strange, expressing more comfort with him in the U.S. Senate
"He's the image we want for Alabama as we move forward," said construction executive Ben Patrick of Birmingham after shaking Strange's hand on Saturday outside the Auburn University's season opening football game.
It's a tricky dance to run against a guy like Moore in a socially conservative state, said David Mowery, an Alabama political consultant who helped manage a Democrat's campaign against Moore in his last judicial race.
"The things that a lot of people would say disqualify Moore for office — which are grandstanding on things, getting thrown out of your office and all that — I think a majority of Republican primary voters feel like those are good things," Mowery said.
Mowery said Strange has to "somehow get a collection of moderate GOP voters to somehow realize that Moore's not the guy for the job."
Strange will have the money to finance attacks on Moore.
"You can't discount the guy with four million dollars," Mowery said of Strange's well-financed campaign.
In addition to drawing on his evangelical base, Moore has attempted to tap into the anti-Washington mood. In campaign stops, he has hammered at Strange's support from McConnell, telling a GOP gathering last week, "there's a Washington crowd trying to buy this election."
"I represent the conservative change in the Republican Party that's coming about," Moore told The Associated Press on Sunday, predicting the race is a test of voter mood before the 2018 midterms.
"All Washington, all the country is watching," Moore said.