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A Senate comeback bid from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has upended the Republican race for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Sessions made his campaign official tonight. He joins a crowded field vying to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Doug Jones. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Jeff Sessions stepped down as attorney general last year after Trump berated Sessions for recusing himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. In a videotaped campaign announcement, he addresses head-on his rocky relationship with President Trump.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time. And I'll tell you why. First, that would be dishonorable. I was there to serve his agenda not mine.
ELLIOTT: Sessions says he thinks the president is doing a great job and has his strong support; clearly an attempt to win over Trump's solid base in Alabama. Even before he announced, Alabama voters were reacting to the news today that Jeff Sessions could be on the ballot next year. Some were surprised.
QUINTON COCKRELL: I think it's probably a mistake.
ELLIOTT: Quinton Cockrell is from Troy, a small city in southeast Alabama.
COCKRELL: I think he's going to get a lot of opposition from the president.
ELLIOTT: Sessions stepped down as attorney general last year after falling out of favor with the president. Trump berated Sessions for recusing himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. In suburban Birmingham, Ashley Clark agrees that could hurt Sessions' chances of winning back his old Senate seat.
ASHLEY CLARK: The fact that Trump already kind of threw him out with - you know, like the baby with the bathwater, then anybody that's really supporting Trump is going to have a hard time probably getting behind Sessions.
ELLIOTT: Sessions, who is 72, served 20 years in the Senate, earning a reputation as the chamber's leading voice against illegal immigration. He's a former U.S. attorney, nominated by President Ronald Reagan, and also served as Alabama's attorney general before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996. Some political observers see Sessions as the GOP's best shot at defeating Jones, considered the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for reelection in 2020. In downtown Birmingham, Austin Brower says he would welcome Sessions back to public office.
AUSTIN BROWER: I'm a Republican, so - I mean, Jeff Sessions has done a lot for the state and everybody, so I'm a big fan of Jeff Sessions.
ELLIOTT: So he comes to the race as a well-known politician in a field that also includes former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, Congressman Bradley Byrne, Secretary of State John Merrill and twice-ousted former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who lost the Senate race two years ago. They'll be counting on Sessions' disfavor with Trump to weaken his appeal with voters.
TOMMY TUBERVILLE: At a time when President Trump needed somebody to stand with him, he didn't do it.
ELLIOTT: Coach Tuberville.
TUBERVILLE: I don't think you can win in this state unless you got President Trump. You have to convince the people of the state that you're behind him because he's got huge approval ratings.
ELLIOTT: Nearly 60% of Alabama voters approve of President Trump's performance. Sessions was a frequent target of Trump's angry tweets, but the president has yet to weigh in on his candidacy. In New Hampshire today, reporters asked Vice President Mike Pence if he'd be campaigning for Sessions. His response was not enthusiastic.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, let me say we'll let the people of Alabama make that decision.
ELLIOTT: Alabama's senior senator, Republican Richard Shelby, says he's talked to Sessions about his candidacy and thinks he's the frontrunner.
RICHARD SHELBY: He ought to win that race - really has to win it on the ground, you know?
ELLIOTT: As for Trump's influence...
SHELBY: He and the president have probably a difficult relationship. Sessions is a friend of mine - longtime colleague for 20 years.
ELLIOTT: Democratic Senator Doug Jones declined to comment, but his campaign has sent out fundraising emails on the news that Sessions is in the race.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.