BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The retired construction company owner winced Friday when asked how he's feeling about the Senate race between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones in this Deep South stronghold that overwhelmingly favored President Trump.
Like many among the lunchtime crowd outside Niki's West, a popular Southern-style buffet in downtown Birmingham, the last thing he wanted to talk about was "all this sex stuff" about Moore having improper relations with teenagers decades ago.
"I'm a Republican. I'm really struggling," said the 80-year-old, declining to give his name. "I don't know what I'm going to do. Not vote?"
Others interviewed Friday expressed a similar kind of political fatigue that is particular to Alabama, which over the years has endured its share of embarrassing national headlines. The Dec. 12 special election to fill the seat held by Jeff Sessions, now Trump's attorney general, has again brought unwanted attention to their state.
"Alabama has been dealing with quite a bit of political disruption," said Gil Franks, a Republican who works at a state prison and is hoping a third candidate will emerge. "We got to get back to people doing the right thing."
He added: "I'm a Republican. ... That is the dilemma we face. It's a hard decision."
Voters expressed mixed views on the allegations against Moore, disclosed Thursday by The Washington Post. Some were shocked, others not so much. Many were full of suspicion about why these stories were emerging now, so long after they occurred, and so close to Election Day, so that ballots cannot be changed to allow a new candidate.
Moore denies allegations that he molested a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s and made sexual overtures toward other teens. He has shown no sign of stepping aside.
His strongest supporters, conservatives and Christians who powered his primary victory against the establishment and Trump-backed candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, are standing by him.
The former judge holds folk-hero-like stature in Alabama for refusing to abide by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage and, earlier, refusing to take down the Ten Commandment panels at the court. One refusal cost him his job, and after voters re-elected him, he later was forced to step aside.
"He's a Christian, and that's what we need more of," said a retired schoolteacher with her husband, a veteran. "It was a long time ago. Why is it coming to the forefront now?"
Nathan Pennington, a big-rig truck salesman from Jasper, who just finished lunch with his father, said the allegations against Moore have given him pause. He's not sure how he will vote now.
Pennington said he's a Republican, but "a Christian first." He wants to learn more about Jones, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama, before making up his mind.
The Jones campaign was always a long shot. The Democrat carries his own storied background as the prosecutor who won convictions against Ku Klux Klan members decades after the civil rights-era bombing that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham.
But Democrats have not won a Senate seat here for more than 20 years, and his path to victory hinged not just on turning out the state's Democrats, but peeling away Republicans. Jones will need to attract the GOP's centrists and business leaders, some of whom view Moore's firebrand conservatism, backed by former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, as too extreme.
Whether there are enough of those kinds of Republicans, against the tide of Moore's dedicated base of rural and Christian voters, likely will determine the outcome.
"You go back in history, when George Wallace was in, he had a lot more support in the rural areas, and you see that with Roy Moore," Franks said. "Is that enough to carry him now going forward?"
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