MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It's Trump versus Trumpland.
President Donald Trump's political muscles are getting a workout in a Republican runoff election in Alabama that has an awkward dynamic: He's campaigning for the establishment-backed incumbent over an upstart beloved by many of his own most ardent supporters, including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Motivated by personal loyalty and a sense that the race is newly competitive, Trump heads to Huntsville, Alabama, on Friday to campaign for Sen. Luther Strange, appointed in February to temporarily fill the seat that opened up when Jeff Sessions became attorney general. The winner of next Tuesday's runoff will be the GOP candidate in a December election to serve out the rest of Sessions' term, ending in January 2021.
Strange is locked in a tight race with former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a jurist known for pushing unsuccessfully for the public display of the Ten Commandments and opposing gay marriage. A super political action committee tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who favors Strange, has pumped millions of dollars into the race, as Senate Republicans worry that Moore would be a disruptive figure in the chamber, or might even lose to Democrat Doug Jones.
Moore led Strange in the first round of GOP voting, but not by enough to avoid the runoff, which could stand as an early test of how much sway Trump has over his political base. Both Strange and Moore have emphasized their support for the president, who is popular in the deep red state.
Strange and Moore traded jabs at a Thursday night debate, with Strange stressing that "the president supports me" and Moore arguing that McConnell and the "elite Washington establishment" were trying to influence the race.
GOP leaders worry about what a loss by Strange would say about the president's political strength going into a midterm election year, as well as their ability to advance his agenda in Congress.
McConnell spoke with Trump recently and assured him that Strange was much more competitive than recent public polls suggested, according to a person with knowledge of the call who requested anonymity to discuss it.
Trump, who endorsed Strange last month, tweeted on Thursday: "Senator Luther Strange has gone up a lot in the polls since I endorsed him a month ago. Now a close runoff. He will be great in D.C."
Challenger Moore, running on an anti-Washington platform, has backing from former Trump chief strategist Bannon and his conservative website Breitbart News, and the Great America Alliance, an advocacy group that supports Trump.
A rally for Moore Thursday night at a historic train shed on the banks of the Alabama River featured Trump allies including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former White House official Sebastian Gorka.
Palin stressed her support for the president, while arguing that Moore was a better match for Trump's "movement."
"A vote for Judge Moore isn't a vote against the president. It is a vote for the people's agenda that elected the president," Palin told several hundred cheering supporters.
Trump's visit comes after some GOP encouragement. At the end of a White House meeting last week, he asked Sen. Bob Corker, of Tennessee, about Strange's chances and Corker said Trump needed to make the trip, said a person familiar with the conversation who was not authorized to speak publicly. Trump then got on the phone with GOP strategist Ward Baker, a Corker and McConnell ally who is working on the race for the Senate Leadership Fund, to talk through the campaign, according to a different person who also requested anonymity to disclose the private conversation.