MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — In a state that has long been reliably Republican, Roy Moore faces an uphill battle in winning over skeptical voters to take back the Alabama Senate seat he lost two years ago amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls.
With GOP leaders including President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aligned against him and Democrats portraying him as a radical, the one-time judge is laying out the argument that state voters are tired of Washington interference.
That may be. But some die-hard Republicans aren't happy with Moore running again after questions about his relationships with young girls decades ago translated into a narrow 2017 victory for longshot Democrat Doug Jones.
"You can paint a leopard any color you want but he still has spots, and that's what Moore has. Moore still has his spots," 66-year-old retiree and faithful Republican Richard Clayton said Friday.
Eating breakfast at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, Fred Holiday said he likes what Moore stands for but still doesn't think he should run for Senate.
"I think Mr. Moore is run out," the 68-year-old Holiday said.
Moore is a longtime favorite of Alabama's most conservative Christian voters, having established his credentials with his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and his refusal to remove a granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building last decade.
In announcing his candidacy Thursday, the 72-year-old Moore cast himself as a righteous servant who evokes fear inside the Beltway.
"Why does the mere mention of my name cause people to get up in arms in Washington D.C?" Moore said. "Is it because I believe in God, and marriage and morality in our county? ... Are these things embarrassing to them?"
Moore's religious appeals still attract voters like 61-year-old school bus driver Sissy Eperson, who said the last election dominated by questions over Moore's involvement with teenagers "was a bunch of crap."
"I'm all for him. I think he'll do a good job. He fought for the Ten Commandments. I'm all for getting Christianity back in the schools," Eperson said.
But some of Moore's most ardent, longtime allies didn't attend his announcement Thursday, and media members outnumbered Moore supporters at the event.
Moore has vehemently denied allegations first leveled during the 2017 race, when several women accused him of pursuing romantic or sexual relationships with them when they were teens and he was an assistant district attorney in his 30s. Two accused him of assault or molestation.
Moore denied the accusations and has said he considered his 2017 defeat, when he lost to Jones by 22,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast, "a fraud."
But national GOP leaders fear the one-time kickboxer could tarnish the party, particularly if he overcomes a primary field that already includes U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee, sent an email Friday asking supporters to donate to Arnold Mooney, a Republican state representative from Shelby County they say is a "strong, reliable legislator" who won't "self-destruct" in the election.
While there has been speculation that former Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions could enter the race, that seems unlikely, according to a person familiar with Sessions' thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the situation.
Sessions, 72, would be a strong favorite to win the nomination should he enter the GOP field. Sessions held the seat for two decades until resigning in 2017 to become Trump's first attorney general. He was later forced out by Trump.
Jones, who was the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama in 25 years, wasted no time in using Moore's candidacy to appeal to supporters for campaign donations.
"Alabama doesn't need Roy Moore," said a campaign email. "The country doesn't need Roy Moore."
Trump, who is immensely popular among Alabama Republicans, tweeted last month that Moore "cannot win" in 2020.
"Republicans cannot allow themselves to again lose the Senate seat in the Great State of Alabama," Trump tweeted.
Trump hasn't responded to Moore's candidacy on social media, but son Donald Trump Jr. did, in response to Moore's statement that he isn't opposing the president's wishes with his candidacy.
"This is pure fake news. I can assure everyone that by running, Roy Moore is going against my father and he's doing a disservice to all conservatives across the country in the process," the younger Trump said in a tweet.
Clayton, the retiree who opposes Moore's candidacy, believes most Alabamians will listen to Trump.
"A lot of people listen to Trump. He's sometimes out toward left field, but people still listen to him," Clayton said.
Reeves contributed from Atlanta. AP writer Alan Fram contributed from Washington.