On a scorching summer day in the shade of a bridge that runs over the river here in Gadsden, Alabama, Republican Rep. Mo Brooks pressed the flesh and made his case to about two dozen voters that he was the candidate who could "drain the swamp" in Washington, DC, and that one of his opponents in the Senate primary, Sen. Luther Strange, was being fueled by the Washington establishment.
The primary race for Attorney General Jeff Sessions' old Senate seat has become a battle for the soul of the GOP. All three of the top candidates are running to defend the president's agenda, but two -- Brooks and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore -- have positioned themselves as outsiders who would defy Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Earlier, a super PAC supporting Strange launched a television ad that put the spotlight on money that Moore received from the nonprofit he founded. The group's high-dollar ad campaign had earlier been solely focused on Brooks, who is a member of the conservative House Freedom Conference.
"Previously he was just attacking me, trying to push me down to get into a runoff with Roy Moore," Brooks told the group. "And now that he's attacking both me and Roy Moore, that suggests that our polling data is more like his, it shows that there is a chance that he won't make the runoff and that scares the willies out of (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and all the special interest groups who are investing in Luther Strange in this race."
Not so, said the president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC responsible for the millions of dollars of advertisements backing Strange's campaign and attacking his rivals. The super PAC is part of the American Crossroads network founded by GOP operative Karl Rove and aligned with McConnell.
The fund's president and CEO, Steven Law, argued in an email to CNN that support for Brooks was waning "due to his opposition to Trump and to funding the war against ISIS,"
The race has pitted Washington, DC, against Alabama and Republican against Republican in a messy, expensive and highly watched primary contest in a state where Senate seats rarely change hands. Sessions held his seat for two decades before he was appointed attorney general by President Donald Trump. The state's other sitting senator, Richard Shelby, has served in the upper chamber since the late 1980s.
Strange, who was appointed to the Senate seat earlier this year by then-governor Robert Bentley, is working to fend off challenges from a number of conservatives, including Moore and Brooks, ahead of the August 15 primary.
All told, there are eight Republicans running for the seat once held by Sessions, and all eight appeared together at a candidate forum in Pelham, just outside of Birmingham, on Friday evening. While the forum's rules prohibited candidates from engaging one another, several made pointed comments about Strange's support inside Washington.
Newly targeted by Senate Leadership Fund ads, Moore -- a favorite among the state's evangelicals for his opposition to gay marriage and refusal to remove a public display of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building -- called the ads "scurrilous" and "vile" missives from "a super PAC designed to keep people there they want to keep there."
Randy Brinson, the former head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama and another candidate in the primary race, seemed frustrated as he described "three career politicians eating each other in the media."
"I think the reason is they have no plan, no vision, no leadership," he added.
For his part, Strange made no mention of the ads, the super PAC supporting his campaign or accusations that he, a former lobbyist who served as Alabama's attorney general, was part of the "swamp" that Trump had pledged to drain.
Instead, Strange, as he has in campaign appearances across the state, painted himself as a reliable ally of Trump who would "have his back" in the Senate and already has done so. He said it made him "almost physically ill" to see fellow Republicans "desert the President."
"We have to have somebody in the Senate who doesn't have any doubt where they stand with President Trump," he said. He cited his work with other Republicans to force a vote on the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During a policy breakfast with reporters hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Brooks said that McConnell has "got to go." And in an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Brooks said that if he were McConnell, he would step down.
"If Mitch McConnell cannot get the job done on this, how is he going to get the job done on the rest of President Trump's agenda over the next three and a half years?" Brooks asked.
On Friday, Moore -- who has previously said he does not want McConnell's support -- accused the Senate Majority Leader of "defamation, slander and libel," an indirect reference to the ads released by Senate Leadership Fund.
"If Mitch McConnell thinks he can use defamation, slander & libel to get me to go away, he's clearly not done his homework," he said in a tweet.
Since a series of Senate primaries in 2010 and 2012 led to bruising general election defeats, Republicans led by McConnell have worked aggressively to beat back more fringe candidates.
Ann Eubank, who was a delegate for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the 2016 GOP primary and is backing Brooks, was not surprised.
"This isn't the first time he's done that," she said."We have a group in Congress that wants to keep the status quo and anybody that shakes it up needs to be destroyed -- that's their attitude."
While much of the attention in the race has been focused on Brooks and Strange, who are already serving in Congress, political observers here said that Moore could have a chance to wrest away the nomination based on the support he pulls from the state's deep base of Christian conservatives.
Bobby Patterson of Trussville said he was backing Moore's campaign because he was a "man of integrity" who recognizes that "the Constitution is the law of the land."
"As a society, everyone has come to undervalue, to know what that really means," Patterson said.
Thus far, Trump has declined to endorse any of the candidates in the heated Republican primary despite the lengths to which Strange, Brooks and Moore are going to paint themselves as the candidate to best move the president's agenda.
Brooks told CNN that he has spoken with the president, but not about his Senate bid. "I have spoken with people in the White House directly and indirectly about this campaign. I have some insight about where the White House is and why."
The swampiness of Alabama politics is unlikely to clear up with fewer than two weeks to go until the special election primary on August 15. If no single candidate emerges with 50 percent of the vote -- a scenario GOP operatives say is likely -- a runoff will be held September 26. The general election is December 12.
"It's one arrow slung after another, back and forth, back and forth -- a lot of inaction in Washington, DC," said Paul DeMarco, a former Republican state legislator who has not endorsed anyone in the Senate race. "People have almost thrown their hands up and said, 'Enough with this mess.' I think it's been so bad the past couple of years that people are tired of the politics and just ready for football season."