By John Whitesides
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Reuters) – Name-calling is not unusual in U.S. politics. But “child abuser” is not usually one of the names.
In the final stretch of a bruising U.S. Senate race in Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones has cranked up his attacks on Republican Roy Moore over allegations of sexual misconduct and made those charges central to his argument that Moore is an unsuitable choice.
Jones, who avoided directly addressing the sexual allegations when they surfaced in early November, has begun to cite them to attack Moore’s character.
On Tuesday, one week before the Dec. 12 special election and a day after Republican President Donald Trump endorsed Moore, Jones said women who allege that Moore assaulted or pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s deserved to be believed.
“I believe these women and so should you. This is about rising above political party to do what’s right for Alabama, and for the country,” Jones told voters during a speech in Birmingham.
Moore, a 70-year-old Christian conservative, has denied the misconduct allegations and said they were a result of “dirty politics.” He said last week he had never met any of the women involved. Reuters has not independently verified any of the accusations.
Moore, who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court for refusing to abide by federal law, was a “source of embarrassment” for the people of Alabama, Jones said.
The raw tone has become typical of a race transformed by the Moore allegations, opening the door for a possible Democratic upset in the conservative Southern state that would deal a blow to Trump’s agenda and dramatically improve Democratic chances of regaining Senate control in next year’s congressional elections.
Jones has cranked up his attacks as the initial wave of voter outrage over the allegations has shown signs of fading, enabling Moore to regain a slight lead in several recent opinion polls in a state that went for Trump by 28 percentage points last year. Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992.
Jones, who holds a fundraising advantage on Moore and has accumulated four times as much cash on hand for the stretch drive, has launched an advertising blitz focusing on the misconduct allegations.
“They were girls when Roy Moore immorally pursued them. Now they are women,” the narrator says in one ad as pictures of the accusers flash by. “Will we make their abuser a U.S. senator?”
On the campaign trail, Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan members convicted of a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls, has cited his own background to draw a contrast with Moore.
“I damn sure believe and have done my part to ensure that men who hurt little girls should go to jail – not the U.S. Senate,” Jones said in Birmingham.
Moore’s rebound in the polls highlights the challenge for Jones as he tries to boost turnout among the state’s African-American voters while peeling away support from moderate Republicans alienated by Moore in a state where many voters are resistant to the Democratic label.
“He is the Republican candidate and I am a Republican. I stand in support of what he supports,” Jenny Mann, 35, said of Moore.
Mann, a self-described stay-at-home mom in Ider, Alabama, said the allegations against Moore “would concern anybody, but I also believe you are innocent until proven guilty.”
Jones, making his first run for public office, has cast himself as a problem solver who would work across the aisle to help Alabamans on “kitchen-table” issues like healthcare and jobs, while Moore has portrayed him as a liberal Democrat straight out of Washington.
Jones supports abortion rights and opposes repealing former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, unpopular stances in Alabama. But he said he never considered moderating his views to improve his chances.
“The key to any campaign and any public official is being true to what you believe, and that’s what we’re putting out there,” Jones said in an interview last month.
Trump’s endorsement freed the Republican National Committee to open its wallet for Moore, who had been cut off by the national party when the misconduct allegations became public.
Not every Republican is falling in line. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has frequently tangled with Trump, tweeted a photo of his $100 donation to Jones. “Country over Party,” Flake captioned it.
Some of Alabama’s black leaders worry about the risk of lackluster turnout among African-Americans, who make up about a quarter of the state electorate and vote strongly Democratic.
“There is not a high level of energy in the black community about this race,” said Democratic state Senator Hank Sanders.
Sanders might have been talking about Freddy Haley, 55, a black retired military veteran from Fayette who said he was a Democrat but had not kept up with politics.
“With the holidays and everything, I haven’t had time to check it out,” Haley said while Christmas shopping in a Birmingham suburb with his family. “When is the election?”
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)