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GOP Senate Candidate Wraps Himself in Trump at Debate

Roy Moore and Luther Strange competed for Trump voters in the first and only debate of the special election to fill Jeff Session's old Alabama's Senate seat.
Image: Roy Moore, Luther Strange
Former Alabama Chief Justice and Senate candidate Roy Moore, left, listens to Sen. Luther Strange, right, during a debate on Sept. 21, 2017 in Montgomery, Ala.Brynn Anderson / AP

MONTGOMERY. Ala. — Do the voters of Alabama need a senator who's friends with President Donald Trump?

That question was at the center of the first and only debate on Thursday between interim Sen. Luther Strange and conservative challenger Roy Moore, just days ahead of Tuesday’s heated Republican runoff election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Strange, who has been trailing in recent polls, is clinging to Trump’s personal endorsement and millions from a super PAC backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Strange mentioned his support from Trump and relationship with the president repeatedly throughout the debate.

Moore, on the other hand, has captured much of the president’s base, including several of his former White House advisers, including ex-chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Former Alabama Chief Justice and Senate candidate Roy Moore debates with Sen. Luther Strange on Sept. 21, 2017 in Montgomery, Ala.Brynn Anderson / AP

Strange said only his "personal relationship" with his "good friend" Trump will help get the president’s agenda passed in Washington, encouraging Alabamians to follow the president on Twitter and bragging that they had spoken for a half hour the night before.

Trump will hold a rally for Strange in Huntsville on Friday.

"I'm sorry I don't know the president personally," Moore shot back. "I can’t tell you when he goes to the bathroom and when he doesn’t, like my opponent."

Moore said Trump’s grassroots supporters were with him, not Strange, whom he portrayed as everything Trump ran against — a corrupt product of the GOP establishment and the Washington "swamp," alleging that the president had been duped into supporting him.

Sen. Luther Strange debates against Senate candidate Roy Moore (not shown) on Sept. 21, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala.Brynn Anderson / AP

"The problem is President Trump’s being cut off in his office. He’s being redirected by people like McConnell, who do not support his agenda," Moore said.

Strange took offense at the claim that someone was pulling Trump's strings, calling it "insulting to the president" and insisting, "The president is his own man."

"Many of the people that are supporting you look like the unemployment line at the White House — they’re fired," Strange said.

There was no moderator in the Lincoln-Douglas-style hour-long face off, only a time keeper. And for two conservative Republicans who share a similar policy agenda, the debate often turned personal and nasty.

Moore is a kickboxer with a penchant for quoting Scripture who was removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusing judicial orders that he felt violated his Christian values.

"Crime, corruption, immorality, sodomy, perversion sweep our land," Moore said in his opening remarks at the debate. He vowed to free America "from political correctness and social experimentation like transgender troops in our bathrooms."

"God is the only source of our law, liberty and government," Moore added.

Strange is an affable six-foot-nine former Division 1 basketball player and corporate lobbyist who was appointed to the Senate just before the former governor resigned in a sex scandal.

Meanwhile, across town, Sebastian Gorka, the departed White House terrorism adviser, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin held a rally to promote Moore.

Chu Green and her husband Joe (center) at a debate watching party with supporters of Republican candidate for senate Roy Moore at Train Depot on Sept. 21, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama.Andrea Morales / for NBC News