MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Sen. Luther Strange was counting on support from President Donald Trump to help carry him to victory - or at least a runoff - in Alabama's Republican primary, while his GOP rivals got in their last licks, calling him the candidate of the so-called Washington establishment.
"The final pitch is: Listen to President Trump. The key is someone who will support him in Washington. He's endorsed me," Strange said as he encouraged Alabamians to get out and vote.
Alabama's Republicans and Democrats were casting ballots Tuesday to select party nominees in the closely watched race for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The GOP race is testing the reach of both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A super political action committee tied to McConnell spent millions of dollars on advertising to try to clear the way for Strange.
Trump's approval rating has hit a new low of 34 percent, according to Gallup, but strong currents of support for the president still flow through Alabama, where the Republican contenders have gone all-out to attract Trump voters and throw shade on the Washington, D.C. "swamp."
Trump weighed in making a recording for robo-calls Monday night urging Alabama Republicans to support Strange, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year and soon found himself in a tight race against firebrand challengers including former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has a strong following among evangelical voters, and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
The Democratic side is also crowded, but has escaped most of the drama of the bitter GOP race. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration, is perhaps the best-known Democrat and is backed by former Vice President Joe Biden and some other national party figures.
In the rural community of Gallant in northeast Alabama, Jimmy Wright, 41, showed up early Tuesday to vote for Moore.
Aside from being a neighbor, Wright said, he likes the way the ousted judge conducted his campaign.
"He's the only one who hasn't been talking crap about the others," Wright said. Trump's support for Strange didn't matter to him, he said.
Strange said he believes the "momentum is on our side with the President's tweet and robocalls," but cautioned that off-year special elections can be unpredictable.
Brooks, meanwhile, hammered at Strange's support from McConnell, asking voters Monday to send a message that "our Alabama Senate seat cannot be bought by special interests in Washington D.C."
"Alabama has a chance to send a message, a huge message - not only to Washington D.C. - but the United States of America. We can send a message that we are tired of this do-nothing Senate," Brooks said.
Brooks said he's the candidate, not Strange, who best supports Trump's agenda, including changing Senate filibuster rules.
Brooks told The Associated Press by telephone Monday that it would send "chills down the spine" of McConnell if he and Moore make a runoff.
Moore is considered a strong contender after gaining attention in the culture wars. Moore was twice removed from his duties as chief justice over his public display of the Ten Commandments and his resistance to gay marriage.
"This is a very, very critical election. It's a critical time in our country. Whether we move forward or we stay stagnant and do nothing, whether we put the hand to the plow and do something for our country to make it a better place," Moore said.
"I think the Washington crowd is watching this race because it's kind of a bellwether," Moore added.
Strange was appointed in February by Gov. Robert Bentley, who soon resigned in scandal. Strange has said he did Bentley no favors, but his challengers have questioned the ethics of seeking the appointment while investigating the governor as attorney general.
The crowded GOP field increases the odds none will get a majority on Tuesday, putting the top two finishers in a September runoff. Other Republicans on the ballot include Sen. Trip Pittman and Christian Coalition leader Randy Brinson.
The Democratic side also includes environmental advocate Michael Hansen, who has urged Democrats to fully embrace progressive positions, and Robert Kennedy, Jr., a Navy veteran, unrelated to the famed Massachusetts political dynasty, who calls for building bridges with Republicans and independents.
While Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years, some Democrats hope the special general election in December - particularly if Republicans end up with a polarizing nominee - could give them a chance.
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Gallant, Alabama, contributed.