Republican Roy Moore's supposedly smooth ride to the U.S. Senate has become an off-color demolition derby since he was hit with decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct involving teenagers.
Moore has made limited public appearances, leading to Democrat Doug Jones, who held a flurry of events over the weekend, to mock Moore for hiding.
"We're on the campaign trail meeting all of you and meeting folks here as no one knows where Roy Moore is," Jones said Friday to a crowd of reporters interviewing him.
Moore made three campaign stops last week. Adoring audiences in little country churches still welcome the Bible-toting Moore. But the campaign also has been punctuated by tense moments and odd exchanges, including an online spat with late night television host Jimmy Kimmel.
The Rev. Jeremy Ragland was taken aback by the furor after he invited Moore to speak at a "God and Country" service held Thursday night in the gym at tiny Bryan Baptist Church in rural Walker County northwest of Birmingham. Ragland said he received death threats and lewd suggestions about his own children before the event, prompting a show of security that included uniformed constables, a burly doorman and plainclothes bodyguards.
"I'm just a rural preacher," an exasperated Ragland said afterward. "When you've got people threatening to kill you, saying your children should be molested, what are you going to do?"
Moore's campaign has been on the defensive since The Washington Post reported claims that he assaulted a young woman and tried to date other teen girls in the 1970s and 1980s. Moore was likely to win easily before the story, but the fallout has given Jones a shot in Republican-controlled Alabama.The Post quoted a Donald Trump-supporting Republican claiming Moore pursued her when she was 14 and he was 32, and that he eventually stripped down to his underwear and touched her. Another woman held a news conference in New York to claim Moore groped her also, and other women said Moore pursued them for dates while they were still in high school.
After days out of the public spotlight, Moore returned to campaigning with dodge-and-jab tactics. He has avoided reporters while speaking to enthusiastic audiences in evangelical churches as he tries to rally his base.
Appearing at Magnolia Springs Baptist Church in Theodore, located near Mobile in southwest Alabama, the former judge known for his intense opposition to same-sex marriage blamed his political enemies for the allegations.
"They've done everything. When I say they, who are they? They're liberals. They don't want conservative values. They're the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. They're socialists who want to change our way of life, putting man above God and that government is our God. They're the Washington establishment who simply wants to keep their job," Moore said.
Moore - whose speeches typically include long, memorized recitations of scripture and quotes from early America patriots - got into an uncharacteristic Twitter spat with Kimmel after "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" regular Tony Barbieri crashed the event in Theodore.
After a heckler interrupted Moore and was hustled out by security, Barbieri jumped up in front of the pulpit where Moore stood.
"That's a man's man," Barbieri shouted. "Does that look like the face of a child molester?"
That led to the social media knock-down between Moore and the comedian. Moore's campaign wrote: "@jimmykimmel If you want to mock our Christian values, come down here to Alabama and do it man to man."
"Sounds great Roy - let me know when you get some Christian values and I'll be there!" Kimmel replied.
A crew from Fox News - the TV channel of choice for many Republicans - were shoved by two event organizers when they tried to film Moore entering a building before a rally in rural Henagar, in northeastern Alabama. Elsewhere, Moore has dodged the media by having security block access or using unexpected exits.
In yet another odd scene, about 20 pastors and activists in Birmingham took turns praising Moore for his decades of support for conservative causes. Afterward, speakers yelled down journalists and one grabbed a videographer's camera as reporters attempted to ask questions. Moore spoke briefly during the event but refused to take questions.
Longtime Moore aide Dean Young chided reporters for even trying to question the candidate during an appearance on the steps of Alabama's Capitol.
"This Jerry Springer stuff is over," she said.
Not yet it isn't. Election day is Dec. 12.
AP writer Jay Reeves contributed to this report from Dora, Alabama.
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