FAIRHOPE, Ala. (AP) — Populist firebrand Steve Bannon savaged national Republican leaders Tuesday night in a fiery call to rally voters behind embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore as the battle for the GOP's soul spilled into a dirt-floor barn deep in rural Alabama.
Bannon, known best for his former role as President Donald Trump's chief strategist, called GOP leaders in Congress "cowards" and attacked the party's 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a draft dodger as he defended Moore, who is fighting several allegations of sexual misconduct and a Washington establishment that wants him to lose the Dec. 12 election.
"The days of taking it silently are over," Bannon declared at a rally that drew hundreds of Moore supporters to a local farm in the southwestern corner of the state.
"They want to destroy Judge Roy Moore. You know why? They want to take your voice away," Bannon said as Moore looked on. "If they can destroy Roy Moore, they can destroy you."
Even if he isn't well-known in this heavily Republican county, Bannon's appearance was a welcome development for Moore, who has been shunned by the Republican Party's biggest stars. Trump himself agreed to campaign later in the week in nearby Florida, but many national GOP leaders say the allegations against Moore are credible and he shouldn't serve in the Senate.
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Moore, if elected on Dec. 12, would "immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee" — a process that could lead to his ultimate expulsion from the Senate. Some Republicans, including Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, have already promised expulsion.
Another Republican, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, sent a $100 check to Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones on Tuesday. He tweeted a picture of the check and the words, "Country over party."
And Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said this week that Moore would be "a stain on the GOP and the nation." ''No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity," Romney tweeted.
Bannon was most aggressive Tuesday night with Romney, charging that Moore had more integrity and honor than Romney's entire family. He noted that Moore graduated from the United States Military Academy, while Romney received a draft deferment for his missionary work in France.
"You hid behind your religion," Bannon said. 'Do not talk to me about honor and integrity."
Moore, 70, is facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, including accusations that he molested two teenage girls and pursued romantic relationships with several others while in his 30s. He has denied the allegations.
Outside the event, about three dozen protesters, some dressed as handmaidens to symbolize Moore's accusers, chanted, "We want a senator, not a predator."
Many gathered inside Oak Hollow Farm's barn have dismissed the allegations as fake. Some didn't seem to mind them, even if true.
"What girl hasn't been kissed at 17 years old?" asked Diane Myrick, 69, of nearby Bon Secour. "I know a girl who got married at 14."
Moore didn't address the allegations directly on Tuesday night. Instead, he cast himself as a political outsider fighting the establishment in both parties, just like Trump did one year ago. He also reminded Alabama voters of his focus on Christian conservative values.
"I know we do not need transgender in our military," Moore said. "If I'm in a foxhole, I don't want to know whether this guy next to me is wondering if he's a woman or a man."
Bannon's presence had less to do with Moore's religious convictions than with their shared disdain for Washington Republicans.
Moore was twice removed from his state Supreme Court position, once for disobeying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building and later for urging state probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.
Bannon is far more focused on economic populism and immigration. But, like Bannon, Moore has promised to stand up to McConnell, a Republican who is deeply unpopular among many diehard Trump supporters.
"They don't want somebody up there with an independent mind," Moore said.
While Bannon is hardly a household name in Alabama — some rally attendees barely knew who he was — he served as Trump's chief strategist during the final months of his presidential campaign and in the early months of his presidency. He was pushed out of the White House in August.
Bannon has resumed his leadership role at the pro-Trump Breitbart News and launched a broad campaign to take down establishment Republicans across the nation.
"What Steve does is he motivates base voters to turn out, which is the entire key to this election," said Andy Surabian, senior adviser to the outside group Great America Alliance, which sometimes works with Bannon.
Moore may get a bigger boost on Friday when Trump hosts a campaign-style rally in Pensacola, Florida, which is less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Alabama border. The Republican president formally endorsed Moore on Monday and directed the Republican National Committee to send some financial assistance after withdrawing roughly a dozen staffers last month.
The RNC made two transfers to the Alabama GOP this week designed to benefit Moore's campaign — one of $50,000 and another of $120,000 — according to one RNC official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Earlier in the day, roughly 250 miles (more than 400 kilometers) to the north, Moore's Democratic opponent called Moore an embarrassment who would be a "disaster" for Alabama in Washington.
"I damn sure believe that I have done my part to ensure that men who hurt little girls should go to jail and not the United States Senate," Jones said during a campaign stop in Birmingham, referring to his own record as a former federal prosecutor.
But some in Alabama welcomed Moore's hardline devotion to Christian conservative values and attacks on the Republican establishment.
Frank Blakeman, a former history teacher from nearby Foley, Ala., described Moore as a continuation of Trump's conservative movement.
"There has been a tug in this country overall to one side," Blakeman said before the rally. "I think Roy Moore represents the wish and desire of the other half of the country to pull that back across. Is he extreme in some of his views? Yes, I think he is. Since politics is a tug of war, you need people to pull to at least get it back somewhere in the middle."
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.