Tuscaloosa is used to having the eyes of the nation on it, especially toward the end of the year. (Suffice to say, there is no controversy in Alabama about who made the College Football Playoff, again.)
Yet the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday, held on the University of Alabama campus, offers the city of 113,000 a different kind of opportunity. The state has never before hosted a debate in a presidential election cycle, with organizers often eyeing swing states, early voting states or huge population centers as possible locations instead.
“For a lot of people, this is going to be their rare opportunity to actually see a presidential candidate in person,” said Walt Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa, adding that he had been fielding a number of ticket requests that rivaled that of a game day weekend. “In Iowa, New Hampshire, that’s a birthright,” Mr. Maddox, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, said of seeing numerous presidential candidates. “In Alabama, that’s something that’s pretty rare.”
In some ways, it is not surprising that Republicans chose to descend upon Alabama, a conservative stronghold molded in part by hard-line politicians willing to leverage its grievances and divisions. (Former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, has frequently reveled in the state’s loyal voter base, but he will not be a participant in the debate.)
“Alabama is getting more attention, especially on the conservative Republican side,” John Wahl, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said. “If you look for a state across the country that kind of embodies Republican principles and the values of the Republican Party, we’re a good state,” he added.
But beyond the outcome of Wednesday’s debate, there are reasons national political figures are paying close attention to Alabama this election cycle.
At a moment when control of the House of Representatives hinges on just a couple seats, a congressional district in Alabama is suddenly competitive. In October, a federal court ordered Alabama to use a new map that creates a second district with close to a majority of Black voters.
The order came after the Supreme Court ruled this summer that the congressional map drawn by the Republican-dominated state legislature violated the Voting Rights Act. The ruling has potentially paved the way for more equitable and competitive races across the region in 2024.
This month Georgia lawmakers unveiled a proposed congressional map that would create an additional majority-Black district, while the Louisiana legislature has until late January to craft a new map that complies with the Voting Rights Act.
And now in Alabama, nearly two dozen candidates are now vying for the Second Congressional District, designated as the newest district where Black voters have a valid opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. (In Alabama, Black voters tend to back Democrats, increasing the odds that the party can flip the seat.)
Some Democrats said that Wednesday’s debate was a chance for them to tie criticism of Alabama’s hard-line leadership and policies to Mr. Trump and the other candidates. Democrats have already spent months hammering the state’s senior senator, Tommy Tuberville, over a monthslong, single-handed blockade of senior military promotions; on Tuesday, he agreed to drop his blockade for all but the most senior generals.
“We’re a conservative state, yes, but I don’t think that we are that state where we are extreme the way that we’re seeing this with Donald Trump and so many of the other Republican leaders,” Doug Jones, a former Democratic senator and Biden ally, said. He argued that policies championed by top Republicans in Alabama — its strict abortion ban, a push to restrict certain books in libraries and an effort to curb rights for L.G.B.T.Q. youth — would make the case against Mr. Trump and other Republican candidates.
But, he added, “even as a as a partisan Democrat, I am happy to see a major debate of the Republican Party coming into this state.”
“It’s always good for Tuscaloosa, for the state, for the University of Alabama,” he said.
Mr. Wahl said that he, too, was pleased that the debate was happening on the campus, where the Republican Party could make inroads with younger voters.
“I think it gives the party a tremendous opportunity to reach out to young people to talk about the issues that are important to them and how these issues affect their lives,” he said.
He also noted that the university’s own, apolitical imagery — crimson red with an elephant mascot — were fitting for a Republican debate.