Last Friday, a rumor started floating around that James had blasted Alabama coach Nick Saban at a campaign stop. There were variations on the rumor, one of which had James using a pejorative in front of Saban's name. The other simply said he would cut Saban's nearly $5 million a year salary. Two people told me they heard the comments but the candidate was clearly joking.
The mere mention of the possibility, whether James was joking or not, had tongues wagging and phones melting down on radio talk shows. But before the conversation ever left the earth's atmosphere, James turned a mild tempest in a teapot into a nuclear war -- at least on the most commonly traveled highways where politics and sports intersect.
Finebaum explains that James, like his father and former Governor, Fob James, both went to and played football for Auburn University, Bama's in-state rival (yes, Auburn is actually inside the state of Alabama). He also notes that James' chief primary candidate, Bradley Byrne, obtained his Master's Degree from Alabama.
Notwithstanding the fact that James, as Governor, has virtually no power over who state university athletic programs hire as coaches, the fact that James is a self-proclaimed "Auburn man" is reason enough for Alabama fans to view his candidacy with suspicion. You see, in this state--football is not a sport, it is a religion. Each fall, the athletic equivalent of jihad is declared between two fanbases and emotions don't settle down until sometime in January.
Finebaum makes note of the fact that James committed two mistakes in handling this: One, he repeated the rumor on Twitter in the process of denying it, thus giving it legs and a longer life in the news cycle and two, whoever posted the denial tweet blamed it on Byrne, a Bama man. But what Finebaum didn't point out was the fact that public opinion surveys conducted each fall show that Alabama isn't just a red state, it's a "Crimson Red State." Polling started in the late 1980's and is usually conducted in the week leading up to the annual showdown called the Iron Bowl. While the Iron Bowl rivalry is a fairly close one on the field (Bama holds a 40-33-1 edge in the series), the rivalry for public support isn't close at all. Alabama fans routinely outpoll Auburn fans by large margins, from 37-23 in the late 1980's to a nearly two-to-one edge, 64-33, in the late 2000's.
This means that, not only was James joke and denial an 11th hour mistake, it was a mistake that could cost James in the polls. The primary field for the Alabama Governor's mansion is crowded and most likely headed for a runoff. James' internal polling showed him with a slim lead last month and other public polling shows a very tight race. Byrne, the Bama man, is the establishment choice in the race, while James is the maverick with stronger Tea Party support.
I'm going with James in the primary next Tuesday. I believe the crack really was a joke and I really don't care if a junior staffer manning the Twitter account doesn't understand the sensitivity of how that thing can play out. Byrne is a good candidate and should he win the primary, I'll throw my support to him.
But if James wins the primary and goes on to beat likely Democrat candidate Artur Davis, I and many other Bama fans will keep a close eye on that Barner.
Extra Point: Current Alabama Governor Bob Riley -- Bama grad.