Republican Roy Moore, Alabama's controversial "Ten Commandments Judge," is back on the ballot this year, running for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court — despite being removed from that office nearly a decade ago.

In a state as red as they come, he is facing last-minute Democratic challenger Bob Vance, who is reaching out to moderate Republicans turned off by Moore's politics.

Moore has been on the front lines of the culture wars since the 1990s, when, as an Alabama circuit judge, he displayed a small wooden plaque of the Ten Commandments in his Gadsden courtroom. In a 1997 interview with NPR, he said it was his duty to acknowledge God.

"Separation of church and state never meant to separate God from government," he said. "The First Amendment never meant to divide our country from an acknowledgement of God."

A Veteran Of The Culture Wars

Ensuing court battles brought Moore national notoriety and a loyal following in Alabama. He was elected chief justice in 2000 and followed through with his campaign promise to erect a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building. It was the size of a washing machine and copyrighted by Moore.

When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed the display was unconstitutional and ordered him to remove it, Moore refused.

"I will not violate my oath," Moore told NPR in 2003. "I cannot forsake my conscience. I will not neglect my duty. And I will never, never deny the God upon whom our laws and our country depend."

The defiance resulted in ethics charges that removed him from the bench later that year. But Alabama law doesn't prevent him from serving again.

Now, after a failed run for governor, and chatter about a presidential bid, Moore is again seeking the office of chief justice.

But this time, he says, he won't try to bring the monument back.

"The issue was never about the Ten Commandments," Moore says. "It wasn't about the monument or my religion or my faith. It was about the acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God. And that I will do. I will acknowledge the sovereignty of God. But to bring back a monument would confuse that issue to the people."

A Surprise Rival

When Moore won the Republican primary, he seemed like a guaranteed win. He's a household name in a decidedly red state where Democrats haven't even been able to field candidates in most statewide contests. The Democratic Party even disqualified its own chief justice nominee for comments critical of homosexuals and other groups. Moore seemed to have the race locked down.

That's when Birmingham Judge Bob Vance stepped in — entering the chief justice race in August. Since then, Moore has been stumping on solid Republican ground.

At a breakfast event at the Vestavia Hills Country Club outside Birmingham, Vance avoids partisan language.

"I feel a heavy responsibility to serve as a representative of all Alabamians. And the chief justice, above all, should serve in that role," Vance told the crowd.

Playing To The Center

Little-known outside Alabama legal circles, Vance is trying to forge a fragile coalition of Democrats and the establishment Republicans who aren't comfortable with Moore's religious crusades.

"Part of my message is that I will be a chief justice that will serve honorably and won't embarrass the people of this state," Vance told NPR.

Vance is the son of the late federal Judge Robert Vance, who was assassinated by a mail bomber in 1989. His wife is the U.S. attorney in north Alabama. He's been a circuit judge for 10 years and says the bench is not the place for political posturing.

"We don't need a rerun of all the theatrics that occurred when my opponent was last chief justice," Vance says. "We need someone who will essentially keep Alabama's Supreme Court off the front pages of the national newspapers."

The message works for Republican voter Tom Oliver, a corporate attorney, who doesn't want to see Moore back on the Supreme Court.

"There's a chief justice disrespecting the federal court system," Oliver says. "You know we as lawyers take an oath to respect the court system above all. That's problematic and I don't think Alabama needs that again."

Several prominent Republicans — including a former congressman and a former Alabama Supreme Court justice — have endorsed Vance.

"That's what we're shooting for — trying to peel off what we call 'thinking Republicans,' " says Barry Ragsdale, a Birmingham attorney working on Vance's campaign.

Guilt By Association

But just as Vance and his allies aim hard for country-club and chamber-of-commerce Republicans, Moore's more populist campaign is trying to energize grass-roots social conservatives. A big part of the message is that Vance is a Democrat with a capital D.

"Not only is this candidate against Judge Moore a Democrat, but he has personally given thousands of dollars to Barack Obama — Barack Hussein Obama's campaign for president," Moore adviser Dean Young told a crowd at a Tea Party rally in Mobile as he introduced his candidate.

In his speech, Moore spent little time talking about his opponent, focusing instead on President Obama and his positions on key social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

"He has ignored our laws, the most wholesome and necessary," Moore said. "For instance, the Defense of Marriage Act. Declaring as president for the first time in the history of this country that marriage is not the union of one man and one woman but whatever the Supreme Court or whatever court says it is."

Sylvia Roberts of Mobile came to the rally to hear Moore speak. She says she'd like to see both Moore and his Ten Commandments restored to the Alabama Supreme Court.

"We're at a critical juncture in our nation," Roberts says. "We will either go back to our Christianity, and the faith, the doctrines that our nation was founded on or we will be a socialist, Marxist country."

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