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Alabama anticipates its moment in the spotlight as it prepares to host GOP debate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The University of Alabama will host the latest GOP presidential debate tomorrow. Work crews spent the weekend setting up the podiums and equipment for the national broadcast. And as Pat Duggins of Alabama Public Radio reports, it's not just the candidates who are looking forward to this moment in the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAT DUGGINS, BYLINE: Tuscaloosa is still buzzing over the Crimson Tide college football team making it to the playoffs. That's going to be on New Year's Day, but Chad Tindall has things to worry about right now. He's chief administrative officer at the University of Alabama.

CHAD TINDOL: We've got final exams next week. Commencement is about 12 days away, and we've got a little bit of a debate. Y'all may not have heard about it, but it's going to happen in a few days.

DUGGINS: The Tuscaloosa campus is hosting the first presidential debate ever to come to Alabama. For the state's Republican Party, the GOP debate is a chance to spruce up its image. Part of that is how Alabama stacks up nationally.

TERRY LATHAN: You know, we're a very red state, and oftentimes in the past, a lot of our folks grumble just a little bit - but not that we're ungrateful. But we do a lot of work.

DUGGINS: That's Terry Lathan. She's Ron DeSantis' Alabama chairman. Lathan also led the state GOP for seven years. She says the grumbling is because national party leaders know how most Alabamians will vote, so they don't spend much time here.

LATHAN: So to bring a debate here, to me, is a tip of the hat to a very red state.

DUGGINS: So getting a debate in a small and red state is considered a nice gesture for Republicans who feel like they're being taken for granted. But not getting attention is one issue. Then there's the problem of getting too much attention, especially when it comes to one member of Congress in particular.

JOHN WAHL: Obviously, one of the bigger news stories coming out of Alabama has been Tommy Tuberville. But I think Alabama has so much more to showcase.

DUGGINS: That's John Wahl. He's Alabama's current GOP chairman. He's referring to Republican U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville and his recent blockade of military promotions over a Pentagon policy related to access to abortion. Just today Tuberville announced he would now only block nominations of four-star generals. Wahl says there's more to Alabama than Tommy Tuberville.

WAHL: And I'm certainly hopeful that through this debate, they will see so many different aspects to our state and what makes Alabama such a great place to live and such a strong Republican state for voters.

DUGGINS: But Terry Lathan appears to be keeping her eyes on the prize nationally. She says voters might choose Ron DeSantis over Donald Trump if the Florida governor delivers similar policies without all the baggage dogging the former president.

LATHAN: You combine those two - that a lot of people are giving Ron DeSantis a look, even in the red state of Alabama. With Trump - it's a very Trumpy state. But I've got people saying, listen. I was for Trump last time. I'm looking hard at DeSantis.

DUGGINS: Those who are tuning into the debate will have the chance to see DeSantis and the other three GOP candidates participating - Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Chris Christie. Trump is planning to skip this matchup, just like the previous ones. Alabama Republicans hope the candidates who do show up will craft their message for young voters on this university campus. Josh Bramlett teaches political public relations at the university. He has a few ideas.

JOSH BRAMLETT: You also have the cost of higher education and student loan debt. And so talking about the economy through the lens of how it matters to young voters would be something that I would hope to see from the moderators and the candidates in this debate.

DUGGINS: However, there are questions as to how many young voters on the Tuscaloosa campus will be tuned in to what the GOP has to say during the debate. For NPR News, I'm Pat Duggins in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pat Duggins
Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio. If his name or voice is familiar, it could be his twenty five years covering the U.S. space program, including fourteen years on NPR. Pat’s NASA experience began with the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, and includes 103 missions. Many NPR listeners recall Pat’s commentary during Weekend Edition Saturday on February 1, 2003 when Shuttle Columbia broke apart and burned up during re-entry. His expertise was utilized during three hours of live and unscripted coverage with NPR’s Scott Simon. Pat later wrote two books about NASA, Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program and Trailblazing Mars, both of which have been released as audio books. Pat has also lectured about the future of the space program at Harvard, and writes about international space efforts for "Modern Weekly" magazine in Shanghai, China.