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Trump Wades Deeper Into Alabama Primary At Strange Rally — With Some Hesitation

President Trump gestures while speaking during rally for Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday.

President Trump traveled to Alabama Friday night to stump for his chosen candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, ahead of Tuesday's bitter GOP Senate primary.

But even he acknowledged his alliance with the appointed senator was somewhat strange given the fact that so many of his allies — such as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, former national security aide Sebastian Gorka and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — are all backing Strange's opponent, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

"I'll be honest, might have made a mistake," Trump acknowledged at one point, before pointing to how much Strange's poll numbers have surged since he tweeted out his endorsement for him. Still, he bemoaned that if Strange loses, he'll be unfairly blamed in the press for the defeat.

"I think you're gonna come back and you're gonna kick everyone's ass," the president predicted to Strange.

But, if it's Moore who wins on Tuesday — as most public polls project — "I'm going to be here campaigning like hell for him," Trump promised.

Trump did underscore an argument that GOP strategists backing Strange have been making — he's the most electable come December's general election race against Democratic nominee Doug Jones. Ultimately, they worry that if it's the controversial Moore — twice removed from the bench for defying federal court orders over a Ten Commandments monument and the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision — who wins the GOP nomination, a race that shouldn't be contested could be put in play, even in deep red Alabama.

""If [Luther] wins, that race is over," Trump said. "If somebody else wins, I will tell you, that's gonna be a very tough race."

And Trump tried to give Strange cover from the attacks he's gotten over the $9 million a superPAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has spent in the race. But even at times, some of those assertions seemed downright implausible.

"He doesn't even know Mitch McConnell," Trump claimed at one point. In his introduction of Trump, Strange himself claimed he would stand up to the Senate majority leader if he's elected. Strange was appointed earlier this year to fill the seat of Trump's now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"Luther wants to end business as usual, stop the insider dealing, and Luther Strange is determined to drain that swamp," Trump said.

It's the circumstances of Strange's appointment that are handicapping his chances — as the state attorney general, Strange's office was investigating the then-governor, under fire for a sex scandal he allegedly used his office to cover up. The governor eventually resigned.

Trump reiterated throughout the night the reason he was backing Strange was because he was loyal to his agenda, especially on health care. Trump recounted how, on efforts last spring to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, he tried to wine and dine senators to vote for the bill, and many wanted something in return or for him to meet their families.

But Strange called him up and said he was with him "right from the start," something the president said left him in disbelief.

"I went home and told my wife, that's the coolest thing that's happened to me in six months," Trump said.

Strange is hoping that Trump's appearance on his behalf — and a subsequent visit by Vice President Pence on Monday — can be the boost he needs to get over the finish line in the primary. At a debate with Moore on Thursday, Strange couldn't mention enough that he was Trump's chosen candidate. And in a state that went heavily for Trump in the primary and general and gave him some of his biggest rally crowds, he's hoping that support for Trump will translate into support for his candidacy with voters.

But Moore has been arguing he's the one who can "best drain the swamp," and after the debate held his own rally with some of Trump's most fervent backers, where they lamented that Trump had gotten bad advice in deciding to back Strange over Moore.

"The swamp is trying to hijack this presidency," said Palin. "The swamp is trying to steal the victory that we worked so hard for."

The majority of Trump's speech — a nearly hour-and-a-half long stemwinder — didn't even focus on Strange, though, and saw the president much more in his campaign trail element. At times, he'd weave back in praise of Strange, but his most animated moments were talking about some of his pet issues.

When mentioning his vanquished 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, familiar refrains of "lock her up" rang out.

"You gotta speak to Jeff Sessions about that," Trump smirked.

Buoyed by chants of "build the wall," he talked about the need to have a see-through wall at the southern border so that drug traffickers couldn't throw bushels of drugs over and hit people on the other side on the head.

Trump boasted of his week at the UN and how he was standing up to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, reviving and adding to his nickname for him — now "little Rocket Man."

He belittled the "Russian hoax" theory that his campaign had colluded with the country to influence the 2016 election.

And when Trump alluded to the biggest news of the day — that the latest effort to repeal Obamacare had met its possible demise after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced he wouldn't vote for the bill — the crowd booed each time the 2008 GOP presidential nominee was mentioned.

Still, Trump promised to the crowd, "we're going to do it eventually," on repealing and replacing Obamacare despite repeated setbacks.A new tirade of the president's — in a very football-minded state — was against the NFL and recent protests by players, started last year by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for refusing to stand during the national anthem.

"Wouldn't you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag, to say 'Get that son of a bitch off the field'?" Trump said to cheers. The president said maybe they should use the catchphrase he made famous as a reality TV star — "You're fired."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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