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Democrat Doug Jones Mounts A Challenge In Deep-Red Alabama

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump took some questions on the Alabama Senate race yesterday. Republican candidate Roy Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct and assault against much younger women. The charges are serious enough that the National Republican Party has backed away from him, but President Trump says Moore denies it all.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We don't need a liberal person in there, a Democrat, Jones. I've looked at his record. It's terrible on crime. It's terrible on the border. It's terrible on the military.

INSKEEP: The Democrat, Doug Jones, has been running in the shadow of the Moore story, so who is he? Here's Dan Carsen of member station WBHM.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Volunteers drop hot fish unto little wrapper-lined cardboard containers at a community center in a black Birmingham neighborhood. It's near where Doug Jones grew up. A local radio personality helps introduce him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Doug Jones will be the senator for the state of Alabama.

CARSEN: Jones tells the crowd he'll work to bring jobs to Alabama and make sure there's funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program. African-Americans make up a quarter of the state's electorate, and as he says to the audience, he needs their votes.

DOUG JONES: Folks, I need your help. Tell folks we have an election on December the 12. Make sure people get to the polls. I need you to knock on doors, to call people.

CARSEN: Jones is trying to walk a delicate line. As he said in a recent interview with member station WBHM, he doesn't want to make the race strictly about the allegations against Roy Moore.

JONES: We're staying in our lane as best we can. Obviously, it's somewhat of a distraction for us because that's all that the media wants to talk about.

ZACH MCCRARY: Doug Jones didn't get into this Senate race to talk about Roy Moore's personal life or to talk about Roy Moore at all.

CARSEN: Zach McCrary (ph) is a Democratic pollster in Montgomery who's unaffiliated with the Jones campaign.

MCCRARY: He's talked repeatedly about kitchen-table issues - better jobs, you know, better schools, more affordable health care. He's got a lot to do without burning his limited bandwidth and resources and time.

CARSEN: But sometimes the elephant in the room gets too big to avoid. Jones recently released an ad that did allude to more scandal. It's also an appeal to Alabama Republicans from a moderate-but-pro-choice Democrat.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I just don't trust him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He's too divisive.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Don't decency and integrity matter anymore?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm a Republican, but Roy Moore? No way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'm for Doug Jones.

CARSEN: Even before this scandal, many Republicans here were already unsettled by Moore. He was removed from the state Supreme Court twice, first over a Ten Commandments monument and again for defying the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage. McCrary says Jones is trying to make himself a safe alternative in a state where Republicans typically dominate.

MCCRARY: Any Democrat who hopes to be successful in Alabama has to put together a very broad coalition of virtually all Democrats, has to do very well with independent voters and even has to pick up some Republican voters.

CARSEN: So Jones's pitch is that he'll reach across the aisle and that his vote in the closely divided Senate won't be taken for granted by either party. While Jones didn't start the campaign with strong name recognition, Jones volunteer Doug Fields says his personal story connects with Alabamians.

DOUG FIELDS: Let everyone know who he is. I mean, the man was a U.S. attorney. You know, he prosecuted a cowardly Klansman who blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four little girls.

CARSEN: As the allegations against Moore continue to multiply, Jones' poll numbers have ticked upward. The election is three weeks away. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.