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‘Beyond embarrassing’? Why Roy Moore’s DACA gaffe might not matter to Alabama voters

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore appeared to know little about former President Barack Obama’s signature immigration program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or "DACA" – during a July interview on a Huntsville-based radio show. The gaffe became publicized in a Sept. 1, piece in The Washington Examiner.

Roy Moore’s recent inability to identify former President Barack Obama’s signature immigration achievement drew scorn online, and mockery from his opponents running in the U.S. Senate race.

"Beyond embarrassing," Sen. Luther Strange’s campaign spokesman said.

"Speechless," said Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee.

But with less than three weeks to go before the Sept. 26 GOP runoff in Alabama’s special Senate election, political observers believe the Moore’s "DACA" gaffe won’t resonate much with voters.

In fact, some of Alabama’s political wonks self-admit they don’t readily know what the acronym stands for – "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," let alone the typical state voter whom Moore is trying to woo at the ballot box.

"The average guy around Moulton, I bet that 95 percent of them don’t know what DACA means," said Steve Flowers, author of 2015 book "Of Goats and Governors – Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories" which highlights some of the state’s more memorable political gaffes.

"It just goes over the head of the average person," Flowers said.

David Mowery, a Montgomery-based political consultant who helped Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Bob Vance’s 2012 campaign against Moore, said: "Does your average voter know what that means? I doubt it."

‘Language of Washington’

The controversy began during a July 11 interview Moore had on The Dale Jackson Show on WVNN, a Huntsville-based radio station. It didn’t become a public or campaign issue, however, until a Sept. 1 story in the Washington Examiner highlighted the context of that interview which shows Moore completely unaware of what DACA means.

The Republican leading in the runoff race in Alabama’s Senate primary appears to have no idea what one of the biggest political issues of the moment is.

Moore, in the immediate aftermath of the Examiner piece, downplayed the mistake by saying he "doesn’t speak the language of Washington."

The publication of Moore’s gaffe came right before DACA was propelled to the top of the national headlines on Tuesday after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions of Alabama announced that the Trump administration was rescinding the program unless Congress can work out a permanent solution for the plight of approximately 800,000 "Dreamers" – undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children – within six months.

According to a Politico/Morning Consult survey, 58 percent of respondents think the Dreamers – many who are only familiar with living in the U.S. – should be allowed to stay and become citizens if they meet certain requirements. Only 15 percent think they should be removed or deported from the country.

Moore, as is Strange, is siding with Trump. But Strange says that Moore’s revised viewpoint is too late, and the senator’s campaign is attacking Moore’s inability to identify DACA back in July.

"It’s obvious Roy Moore is clueless about the immigration debate after 40 years of running for political office," said Cameron Foster, a campaign spokesman for Strange. "Luther is proud to stand beside President Trump who understands how serious it is to stop illegal immigration and enforce our nation’s laws."

‘So what?’

William Stewart, professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama and a longtime observer of politics in the state, said he doesn’t think Moore’s gaffe will matter whatsoever with voters.

Moore, after all, is best known for social causes which have gotten him booted from the bench. In 2003, he was removed from the state Supreme Court for refusing to take down a Ten Commandments display. Last year, he was suspended for authorizing the state’s probate judges not to provide marriage certificates to same-sex couples.

Flowers, the author and a former Republican member of the Alabama House, said most Alabama Republicans will continue to identify Moore with those past social crusades.

"(The DACA gaffe) shows his basic lack of knowledge about the Senate and the issues, but I don’t think that is resonating with the average Alabamian that is voting for him," Flowers said. "He seems to have resilience. They understand the gay marriage issue and why he was kicked off the bench. That supersedes any national issue."

Said Stewart: "People seem to like or not like Moore for other reasons. I’m sure for those who shudder to think about having Moore represent this state in the U.S. Senate, it will reinforce their view that he is not qualified for the job. Those who support him will say, ‘so what? He doesn’t know all the acronyms the Washington swamp-dwellers use.’"

Memorable gaffes

Moore’s gaffe, which has received some national press in the past week, certainly hasn’t risen to the prominence of more notable slip-ups in modern politics such as Howard Dean’s scream in 2004, or Rick Perry’s struggles to remember a federal agency he wanted to disband during a 2011 presidential debate.

But those memorable moments were immediately captured by national news outlets. Moore, political observers note, may benefit from having his gaffe initially exposed on a local conservative media radio show, and not highlighted by national outlets until almost two months later.

"I think if you were in a debate on a national stage in a presidential race, something like Rick Perry’s gaffe, it makes him look inexperienced and unprepared," said Flowers. "But in this case, I don’t think some right-wing radio disc jockey in Huntsville catching (Moore) on DACA … I don’t see any resonance to it."

If the ex-judge wins the Senate race, the gaffe is also unlikely to resonate in the Alabama political history.

Flowers said one glaring gaffe that led to a political loss occurred in 1986, when Democrat Bill Baxley was campaigning statewide for governor against Republican Guy Hunt.

"Baxley went around the state, to every Rotary Club meeting, and said ‘Guy Hunt doesn’t have anything but a high school education,’" recalled Flowers. "He didn’t realize he was insulting 80 percent of Alabama voters."

Hunt won that election, becoming the first Republican governor in Alabama since Reconstruction.

Stewart said the biggest gaffe in Alabama political history occurred in 1962, when former Gov. "Big" Jim Folsom was seeking a third term to office – unprecedented at the time.

But on a TV appearance before Election Day, Folsom appeared disorientated and could not recall the names of some of his children. Folsom claimed he had been drugged, others said he was drunk. Folsom lost the election.

On a national level, Stewart said that that former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s appeal during the 1968 presidential campaign began to wane after his running mate, Curtis Lemay, suggested it might be feasible to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The selection of Lemay as a running mate proved disastrous to Wallace’s campaign, though he carried five southern states during the November election.

Larry Powell, a political communications professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said in more recent times, the effectiveness of political gaffes has been diluted.

He blames the saturation of partisan media outlets for spinning what is otherwise an embarrassing situation for the politician.

"Why cover a gaffe if you want the guy to win?" Powell said.

Trump is a recent example, Powell said, referring to last year’s recording of a past interview the current president gave in which he made lewd comments about groping women.

"It got coverage in the mainstream media but had no impact on his partisan support," Powell said.

‘Wedge issue’

Despite overwhelming belief that Moore is insulated from the harmful impact of the DACA gaffe, there are some political observers who believe it offers Strange an opportunity.

That challenge for the senator, though, is how to best exploit it, they say.

"It gives Strange a wedge issue, but I’m not sure it can be easily enough explained in a 30-second ad," said Brent Buchanan, a Republican political strategist out of Montgomery.

Stephen Frantzich, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of the 2012 book, "O.O.P.S.: Observing Our Politicians Stumble," said he can see Moore harmed by it.

"While his ‘Washington speak’ response is clever, the DACA issue has been all over the news and has a national impact, although it was not as completely covered back in July," Frantzich said. "One would expect a candidate for a national institution would have enough information on a crucial aspect of immigration policy to be able to ‘hit the ground running’ when dealing with contemporary issues."

A bizarre Lower Alabama murder case in which a suspect literally butchered his own tongue in an effort to mislead investigators will get some national attention on Tuesday, courtesy of "Killer Instinct with Chris Hansen."

In a new episode airing at 8 p.m. Central time Sept. 12 on the Investigation Discovery channel, host Hansen turns his attention to the 2007 death of Stephen Perret in Citronelle. At the beginning of the episode, Hansen explains the show’s premise: "When someone is murdered, police want to know who did it," he says. "But I want to know why."

That takes him "deep inside some of America’s most compelling murder cases," he says – and in this case, one that "truly set the bar for bizarre and brutal misdirection."

Over the course of a brisk hour, "Killer Instinct" recaps a saga that took some five years to play out. Stephen Perret was found mortally wounded one August morning, hit by two shotgun blasts to the neck and head while sitting at the wheel of a truck belonging to his friend, neighbor and boss, Michael Crocker.

A few days later, Crocker’s wife called 911, screaming that there’d been an attack in their home. Crocker was found with his face covered in blood, and told authorities he’d been attacked by men in black who’d cut his tongue.

That story quickly fell apart. As Assistant District Attorney Jo Beth Murphree says in the "Killer Instinct" episode, "within a relatively short period of time, we knew it did not happen the way he said."

Investigators concluded that Crocker had faked the attack, using a pair of pliers to pull out his tongue while he sliced it with a razor blade held in his other hand; both implements were recovered. They also learned he’d embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company where he and Perret worked. An investor had discovered the problem, and Perret was helping expose what was going on.

By the end of 2007 the investigation had stalled. Crocker had motive to kill, but the case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. It was 2011 before he was arrested, 2012 before a grand jury indicted him and 2014 before Crocker plead guilty to murder, drawing a 19-year sentence. It might never have happened if not for fresh information from a witness and a dogged effort by investigators such as James "Robbie" Riddick, then a detective with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, and MCSO Capt. Paul Burch. They figure prominently in the episode. And their work is a big part of what drew Hansen to the case, he said.

"This was one of those cases with twists and turns that almost aren’t believable," Hansen said. "Burch and Det. Robbins stayed on this thing and worked it and worked it for years."

Hansen said that’s the kind of law enforcement work he finds inspirational.

"These are cops who don’t sleep at night because these cases are unsolved," Hansen said. "These are cops who don’t retire because these cases are unsolved."

In an image from "Killer Instinct," host Chris Hansen, center, studies a recreation of a crime scene with former MCSO Det. Robbie Riddick, left, and MCSO Crime Scene Investigator Jerry Hurst, right. (Courtesy of Investigation Discovery)

Burch, speaking Friday, said that what stands out about the case for him is that "this was a true innocent victim." Perret "was basically killed for being honest," Burch said.

The tongue-cutting incident "really was the guy’s downfall," Burch said of Crocker. "That drew all the attention to him."

"I think it shows what desperation can do to somebody who’s not normally a criminal," said Hansen. Crocker had been living beyond his means and stealing to pay for it, he said, and when it started to crash down "he went from being a law abiding citizen to being a killer."

The host agreed with Burch’s thought on Perret.

"Here’s a guy who’s just trying to do the right thing," he said. "That’s just so tragic, when you think about it."

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