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The rise and fall of Judge Roy Moore

Three years ago, Judge Roy Moore was the Next Big Thing in American politics.  Supporters saw him as a possible governor, U.S. senator -- or even president. Now he trails badly in Alabama's Republican gubernatorial primary.  What happened?
Bob Riley, Roy Moore
Republican candidate for governor Roy Moore trails Alabama Gov. Bob Riley by a 3-to-1 margin in the polls and an even wider margin in fundraising, heading into the state's June 6 GOP primary.Rob Carr / AP file

Three years ago, Roy Moore was well on his way to becoming the Next Big Thing in American politics.

Despite being ousted as Alabama’s chief justice for defying a federal order to remove his controversial 5,300-pound monument of the Ten Commandments inside thestate’s judicial building, Moore quickly became one of the most popular figures in Alabama and an icon among religious conservatives. Supporters saw him as a possible candidate for governor, senator -- or even president.

Then came President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, which was greatly aided by a wave of evangelical voters, a further sign of Moore’s political potential. Indeed, a poll from January of last year showed Moore leading Alabama's incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Riley, who had been wounded politically from his failed $1.2 billion tax increase of 2003.

Moore, a fellow Republican who believes that God is the sovereign source of America’s laws and government, will face Riley in the gubernatorial primary on June 6. Yet, in what seems to be one the biggest political reversals in recent memory, Moore is trailing Riley in the polls by nearly 50 points.

A new Mobile (Ala.) shows Riley leading Moore, 69-20 percent, among likely Republican primary voters. It’s the newspaper’s third consecutive poll in four months that has Riley ahead by at least 28 points. Close watchers of the race say these numbers mirror findings they’ve seen in other polls.

The Riley-Moore contest was expected to be a classic clash between two different pillars of the Republican Party: the business community (represented by Riley) and religious conservatives (represented by Moore). But it hasn’t turned out that way. “I guess it has come as a surprise to a lot of people who follow Alabama politics,” notes Keith Nicholls, a political science professor at the University of South Alabama who conducts the Press-Register poll.

Part of the reason for Moore’s free-fall, Alabama political experts say, is that Riley is on the rebound (due to a growing economy and favorable reviews of his response to Hurricane Katrina). Another reason is that Moore has committed some embarrassing gaffes. He recently suggested that the first case of mad cow disease in the state was a conspiracy to help pass a state animal identification system.

But perhaps the biggest reason for his decline is this simple rule in American politics: single-issue candidates rarely win higher office. William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, says voters know where Moore stands on the Ten Commandments and religion.

“But they want to know what he’s going to do about industrial recruitment … or coping with prison overcrowding,” Stewart explains. “He has not demonstrated that he is very well versed in these issues.”

The 'good fight'
A Vietnam veteran, kick-boxer, and then state judge, Roy Moore first grabbed headlines in Alabama in the mid-1990s, when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue him for displaying a copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. That controversy helped catapult him to win election as Alabama chief justice in 2000, and he installed his granite monument of the Ten Commandments after taking office.

In November 2003, after defying a federal court order to remove the monument because it violated the separation of church and state, Alabama’s court of the judiciary unanimously ruled to remove Moore from office for placing himself above the law. The entire episode transformed the Montgomery courthouse into a media spectacle. It also made Moore a hero of the religious right.

“We fought a good fight,” he told his supporters immediately after his ouster. “We kept the faith. But the battle is not over. The battle to acknowledge God is about to rage across the country.”

Hidden voters
Moore’s campaign contends that the current polls don’t accurately reflect all of the Christian conservatives who will vote for him. “Judge Moore is difficult to poll because of his broad base of support,” says his spokesman J. Holland. “We’re not concerned with polls. We don’t have faith in polls.”

Joe Perkins, a Democratic political consultant whose client Moore defeated in his 2000 race for Alabama chief justice, agrees that the strength of Moore’s support is sometimes hidden. Perkins says his candidate ran a perfect race, and he thought they could win on Election Day. But Moore won, 54-46 percent. “It was largely because there were people who voted that don’t usually vote.”

This time around, however, Perkins doesn’t believe that a huge turnout among Moore’s supporters can compensate for his 50-point disadvantage in the polls. “It is hard for me to think it would make up for this huge disparity.”

One-issue candidate
Observers like the University of Alabama’s Stewart argue that Moore is trailing because he has been unable to broaden his support beyond Christian conservatives. Moore won his judicial races, Stewart adds, because Alabama voters often believe that morals, values, and religion are key attributes they want in their judges. But for their governors, he says, they want something more.

“One-issue candidates are notoriously unsuccessful for that very reason,” says Amy Walter, who tracks political races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Cook. She said that the dozen or so Democratic Iraq war veterans running for Congress this year are examples of one-issue candidates who haven’t fared well.

But Moore’s supporters contend that it’s false to label him as a one-issue candidate. In fact, the mission statement on his Web site states that Moore advocates term limits for state legislators, fewer legislative sessions, returning control of education to parents, lower taxes, and closing the border to illegal immigrants. Still, Alabama voters best know Moore for his Ten Commandments monument.

Indeed, his campaign’s first television ad of the race, which was released last week, shows videotape of the 2003 Ten Commandments controversy. “It was never about the monument … or the Ten Commandments,” the ad’s narrator states. “It was always about the recognition of God as the sovereign source of our laws, liberty, and government!”

The Riley factors
While the polls show that Moore’s political fortunes are on the decline, Gov. Riley’s are reaching highs that many wouldn’t have thought possible after his tax-increase plan went down to defeat at the beginning of his first term. But since then, the state’s economy has improved, producing a surplus and a low unemployment rate. He also received credit for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, especially compared with how leaders in Louisiana and in the federal government handled it.

“Roy Moore hasn’t proved to the people of Alabama that he can keep on doing what Gov. Riley has set in place,” says Riley campaign spokesman Josh Blades.

The winner of the Riley-Moore primary on June 6 will face either former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman or Democratic Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley in the fall. (Siegelman is currently facing a trial on corruption charges, and his trial isn’t expected to conclude before the primary.) And political analysts give the edge to Riley in the general election.

But, no matter what the polls say, Moore hopes to make believers out of everyone two weeks from now. Holland, Moore's spokesman, says: “He’s just an unpredictable candidate, and I think you’ll see that on June 6.”

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.