GADSDEN, Ala. — Given the tenor of the campaign in the state, one might think Doug Jones was a doctor performing abortions on young women, not a former prosecutor and now Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.
But Republicans have been merciless in attacking the man some of them have dubbed “Abortion Jones,” hoping to find reasons to rally a base they fear might stay home on Election Day rather than turn out for embattled Republican nominee Roy Moore.
“I believe the people of Alabama do not understand how important this U.S. Senate race is in the future of the country, but people from outside Alabama do,” former state Sen. Scott Beason said Thursday on his radio talk show.
Mr. Beason, who in 2011 ushered through Alabama legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks, said powerful liberal organizations are focused on the race for a reason and urged his listeners to “wake up.”
Mr. Beason’s guest, Janet Porter, head of Faith2Action, a Florida-based pro-life group in Alabama to back Mr. Moore, speculated that “accusations have been ginned up” against the Republican candidate to try to steal the seat.
“The winner of this race, whoever it is, is going to be the deciding vote on who sits on the Supreme Court for the next 30 or 40 years,” she said. “That is why this race matters so much, and that is why the assault against him is so intense.”
The special election is less than two weeks away, and Mr. Moore and Mr. Jones are locked in a tight battle. After falling behind in the polls as accusations emerged of sexually predatory behavior, including against minors, Mr. Moore has retaken the lead in many polls, with voters increasingly skeptical of the women who have come forward.
He has strong support from evangelical Christian voters for whom the abortion issue is paramount.
Still, prognosticators say the race is a toss-up in a rock-red state where a Republican should be cruising to victory.
Mr. Moore has carried himself as a pro-life warrior throughout his career of public service. On the campaign trail, he has called Roe v. Wade unconstitutional and vowed to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood.
Mr. Jones is running as a moderate and staked out a more liberal position than Mr. Moore‘s, saying he supports abortion laws as they stand.
Mr. Jones’ critics, however, have seized on his remarks, which he says he later clarified, last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said on the Sunday morning program that he is not in “favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose” and that he becomes a right-to-lifer after a child is born.
“Jones takes a radical position on abortion that is out of step with even pro-choice Alabamians,” said Brett Doster, a Moore adviser. “As voters weigh his views, they realize that Jones may be better suited to represent Massachusetts or California, not Alabama.”
Democrats counter that Mr. Moore and his allies have purposely misconstrued Mr. Jones’ stance on the issue to motivate their base.
“He supports Alabama law, which means it is the woman’s right to choose for the first trimester and the state has the right to limit the choice for the second and third trimesters,” said Richard K. Mauk, head of the Jefferson County Democratic Party in Alabama.
At the same time, Democrats recognize the potential power of the Republican line of attack. They say no single issue resonates more in Alabama than abortion.
“This is the Bible Belt, and a lot of people now believe, which they didn’t in the past, that a life begins at conception,” Mr. Mauk said. “That is what they believe, and they don’t want that life messed with, and it is a strongly held belief by a lot of folks, and they are willing to put a pedophile in office based on that.
“How do you reconcile that?” he said. “You can’t reconcile that. It is totally irrational.”
Many pro-life activists dismiss sexual misconduct accusations against Mr. Moore. They argue that a national lynch mob comprised of weak-kneed Republican leaders and liberal organizations have played up the accusations to protect the status quo and derail a candidate in the mold of President Trump.
On “The Scott Beason Show,” Mrs. Porter said a big reason she voted for Mr. Trump last year was because he promised to put pro-life judges on the Supreme Court and that electing Mr. Moore would bolster those efforts.
“What good is that promise if you don’t have a Senate that is willing to confirm them?” she said, voicing concerns about the slim Senate Republican majority, which now sits at 52-48.
Voters here also said the issue is at the top of their list of concerns.
Charles D. Jackson, 83, said he used to be a Democrat but left the party in large part because of the way it has embraced abortion. He said he could never support a candidate who was fine with it.
“Hell no, I don’t like abortion — period,” Mr. Jackson, a retired Marine, said as he strolled through the Gadsden Mall, a location where, according to some of his opponents, Mr. Moore sought out teens to date as a prosecutor in his 30s.
Just outside the building, a woman puffing a cigarette who declined to share her name over concerns related to her job, said she has known for a long time that some of the accusations against Mr. Moore were true but she was still wrestling with the question of whether she would vote for him.
Asked whether an issue like abortion could swing her, she said she would listen to “my gut.”
The heavy national attention also appears to be weighing on Alabama residents.
A man sporting an Atlanta Braves baseball cap sitting in a rocking chair at the mall said he had been following the race but had no interest discussing it with The Washington Times.