SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now to Alabama, where the state's controversial "Ten Commandments judge" is back on the ballot this year. Republican Roy Moore is running again for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He was removed from that office nearly a decade ago. A last-minute Democratic opponent has entered the race, and is winning over moderate Republicans uneasy about Roy Moore returning to the state's high court. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Judge Roy 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 this 1997 interview with NPR, he said it was his duty to acknowledge God.

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ROY MOORE: Separation of church and state never meant to separate God from government. The First Amendment never meant to divide our country from an acknowledgement of God.

ELLIOTT: Ensuing court battles brought 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, Judge Moore refused.

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MOORE: I will not violate my oath. 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hallelujah!

UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: (CHEERS)

ELLIOTT: The defiance resulted in ethics charges that removed him from the bench in 2003. But Alabama law doesn't prevent him from serving again. So 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.

MOORE: The issue was never about the Ten Commandments. It wasn't about a monument, or my religion, or my faith. It was about the acknowledgement 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.

ELLIOTT: When he won the Republican primary, it appeared Moore had a lock on the race. He's a household name in a decidedly red state; where Democrats haven't even been able to field candidates, in most statewide contests. Then, the Democratic Party disqualified its chief justice nominee, for comments critical of homosexuals and other groups. That's when Birmingham Judge Bob Vance stepped in, entering the chief justice race in August.

BOB VANCE: Good morning, y'all.

ELLIOTT: He's stumping on solid Republican ground - like this breakfast at the Vestavia Hills Country Club, outside Birmingham. His speech avoids being partisan.

VANCE: I feel a heavy responsibility to serve as a representative of all Alabamians. And the chief justice, above all, should serve in that role.

ELLIOTT: 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 Judge Roy Moore's religious crusades.

VANCE: Part of my message is that I will be a chief justice who will serve honorably, and won't embarrass the people of this state.

ELLIOTT: Vance is the son of the late Alabama federal judge Robert Vance, who was assassinated by a mail bomb 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.

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

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

TOM OLIVER: There's a chief justice disrespecting the federal court system. 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.

ELLIOTT: Several prominent Republicans, including a former congressman and a former Alabama Supreme Court justice, have endorsed Vance. Birmingham attorney Barry Ragsdale is working on Vance's campaign.

BARRY RAGSDALE: That's what we're shooting for - we're trying to peel off what we like to call thinking Republicans.

ELLIOTT: 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 grassroots social conservatives. And a big part of the message is that Vance is a Democrat, with a capital D. Here's Moore adviser Dean Young, at a tea party rally in Mobile.

DEAN YOUNG: 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.

ELLIOTT: In his speech, Judge Moore spends little time talking about his opponent; but instead, focuses on President Obama and his positions on key social issues, like abortion and gay marriage.

MOORE: He has ignored our laws, the most wholesome and necessary - for example, 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 any other court - says it is.

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ELLIOTT: Sylvia Roberts, of Mobile, came to hear Moore's speech. She says she'd like to see both Judge Moore, and his Ten Commandments, restored to the Alabama Supreme Court.

SYLVIA ROBERTS: Absolutely. We're at a critical juncture in our nation. We will either go back to our Christianity and the faith that - doctrines that our nation was built on; or we will be a socialist, Marxist country.

ELLIOTT: Moore has a loyal following among religious conservatives like Roberts, and is certainly more well-known than Bob Vance. But Vance heads into the final stretch of the campaign with a two-to-one financial advantage. The question is whether there's enough time to make headway against Alabama's most famous chief justice. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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