By ALEX ISENSTADT and CRISTIANO LIMA
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — President Donald Trump on Friday stepped into the middle of a heated GOP primary that has deeply divided his party and has pitted the commander in chief against some of his most ardent backers.
With the Alabama Senate special election just days away, the president heaped praise on Sen. Luther Strange, describing him as an unapologetic ally who would help him deliver on his agenda. “Luther is your man,” Trump told the thousands of enthusiastic supporters who packed the Von Braun Center here, imploring them to “get out and vote.”
“Like all of you, Luther Strange knows the true strength of this country: It’s God, it’s family and it’s country,” Trump said.
The president also threw a jab at Strange’s opponent, Roy Moore, a controversial former Alabama chief justice, who, he argued, could lose to a Democrat in the December general election.
“Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election,” Trump said. “Moore is going to have a hard time winning.”
Trump’s speech, which stretched on for well over an hour, represented a political risk. In declaring his unwavering support for Strange, who has the support of establishment figures like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the president is squaring off against longtime loyalists such as former chief strategist Steve Bannon who have come out forcefully for Moore.
Another prominent Trump supporter, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, traveled to the state on Thursday to campaign for Moore, a staunch social conservative who rose to national fame after defying a federal order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building.
Toward the end of his remarks at the Friday rally — filled with digressions that included discussion of everything from Hillary Clinton to North Korea to professional football — Trump hinted at the gamble he was taking.
“I’m taking a big risk, because if he doesn’t make it, they’re going to go after me,” the president said, referring to the many members of the media who were in attendance at the Von Braun Center. Trump said he would face accusations that he couldn’t get his candidate over the finish line.
“I’ll be honest, I might have made a mistake,” he said, “because, you know, here’s the story. If Luther doesn’t win, they’re not going to say we picked up 25 points in a very short period of time. They’re going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump. This is total embarrassment.’”
At some moments, he seemed to be bracing for the possibility of a Strange loss. He acknowledged that polls had shown the senator trailing throughout the race. And he said that if Moore came out ahead on Tuesday, he would campaign for him before the general election.
“I told Luther if his opponent wins, I’ll be here campaigning like hell for him,” Trump said.
Both candidates, the president said, are “good men.”
Trump cast his decision to support Strange as loyalty to a politician who had stood with him. Prior to initially endorsing Strange a tweet last month, Trump recalled, he spoke with the senator on the phone and told him he wanted to repay him for his support on the failed Obamacare repeal effort. While some Republican senators had lined up against the legislation, the president said, Strange had given his support without asking for any political favors in return.
Since then, Trump said, he and the senator had grown close. He described how he had come to call the 6-foot-9 Strange, who in February was appointed to temporarily fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general, as “Big Luther.” And he said he and Strange had bonded over their newcomer status in Washington.
Strange, he said, is a “great person I’ve gotten to know.”
Since announcing his support for Strange, the president has repeatedly used social media to vouch for his credentials. Trump touted on Twitter earlier Friday that the senator had “gained mightily since my endorsement,” while cautioning that, even so, the race would be “very close.”
The president tried to inoculate Strange from attacks that he was part of the establishment — particularly McConnell, whose super PAC has spent millions supporting him in the race. The reality, Trump argued, is very different. Strange, as a Senate newbie, barely knew the Senate GOP leader.
“He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell at all. Luther is a tough cookie,” Trump said. “He doesn’t kowtow to anybody.”
For Strange, the Friday night rally was a dream come true. He and senior Republicans had been pleading with the president to hit the trail with him. After weeks of refusing to commit, Trump announced last Saturday evening on Twitter that he’d be heading to Alabama for Strange. It was a visit, the senator’s team was convinced, that could turn the race in their direction.
While Trump’s approval numbers have declined elsewhere, he remains widely popular in conservative Alabama. An August 2015 rally in Mobile helped to catapult his presidential bid.
More than once on Friday, Trump interrupted his speech to marvel at his support in the state. It was a wonder, he said, how a New Yorker like himself could be so popular in a Southern state like this one.
“I feel like I’m from Alabama, really,” the president said.
Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.