My first personal encounter with Roy Moore came in summer 2005.

He was already famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery.

After a state judicial ethics panel removed Moore from office over the Ten Commandments controversy, Moore took the helm of the Foundation for Moral Law, a Montgomery-based nonprofit. It was while he was working at the foundation that Moore granted me — at the time the editor of The Vanguard, the University of South Alabama’s college newspaper — an interview.

The word on the street was that Moore wanted to make a run for governor. Alabama already had a Republican governor in Bob Riley. However, at the time Riley looked vulnerable given the outright failure of a $1.2 billion tax referendum he heavily promoted.

The substance of the interview turned out to be uneventful. Christianity was good, and government waste was bad. Regardless of the question, his answers seemed to always gravitate toward a dig at Bill Pryor, the Alabama attorney general who had ousted Moore from the bench a year and a half earlier.

It was his demeanor and mannerisms that struck me that day. It was as if Moore were delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon insisting I repent for my sins or face eternal damnation in hell.

His approach, to me, seemed like the biggest problem Judge Moore would have in advancing his political career. Preaching the gospel from the pulpit might get some people to find Jesus. It was less clear whether preaching from a political pulpit would get voters to pull a lever for Roy Moore.

Who was going to vote for a politician whose campaign signage might as well have mimicked the old homemade billboard on Interstate 65 between Montgomery and Birmingham: “Vote for Roy Moore, or the devil will get you!”

My instinct in 2005 turned out to be true. Moore never was able to advance to the second round of voting in his two attempts at governor.

The first time Moore ran, Riley demolished him in the 2006 GOP primary, 66 percent to 33 percent. Four years later, he finished fourth behind Bradley Byrne, eventual governor Robert Bentley and a well-funded Tim James, earning only 19 percent of the GOP vote.

Whatever Moore was selling, folks weren’t buying — at least not in a high-profile race at the top of a ballot.

He would win another Alabama Supreme Court chief justice term in 2012, only to be expelled again in 2016 for instructing lower-court judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court saying such refusals were unconstitutional.

In this U.S. Senate special election Republican primary, things turned out to be much different. Ever since Moore announced his candidacy, he has been the lead dog in the contest for the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In last week’s primary, Moore was the top vote-getter in a crowded field, which included two high-profile Republican officeholders, U.S. Sen. Luther Strange and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks.

Moore and Strange will face off in a runoff Sept. 26. The first round of polling seems to indicate the runoff could be a big win for Moore, who leads Strange in a JMC Analytics poll of likely registered voters, taken Aug. 17 and Aug. 19, by 19 points.

That’s a big deficit for Big Luther. The polling is that much more striking considering Strange has the deep pockets of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund backing him, his technical incumbency and the fact that he has previously won two statewide elections for Alabama Attorney General.

What changed? How is it that he is now in the driver’s seat for a spot in the U.S. Senate when, before this election, many largely dismissed Moore as a fringe novelty candidate who was dining off the 2003 Ten Commandments controversy?
Moore changed.

He’s still the religious zealot we all know from past campaigns. He has not backed away from his stance on gay marriage. In fact, he touted his book “Abuse of Power,” which criticizes the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision, at least twice on the campaign trail.

While Moore has not deviated from his values, he has softened his approach. He is no longer a finger-wagging proselytizer. Somewhere along the way, he recognized that would not get him as many votes. Instead, the finger-wagging has focused on his opponents and other political figures.

He has also realized the beauty of showcasing political gimmickry. Moore arrived at his polling location on horseback in a cowboy hat and boots. As hokey as that may seem, in the eyes of many Alabama voters it was appealing.

Roy Moore has changed, and it seems to be working.

Last week’s GOP primary gave us some clarity about the political climate in Alabama. We know money will at least get you in striking range. Ten million dollars later, Luther Strange lives to fight another day.

We have also learned what so-called conservative movement leaders such as Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity have to say does not move the needle in Alabama. Mo Brooks was hoping their endorsements would give him a boost, but he had a worse showing than even the polls suggested.

The one element that is clutch in statewide elections is that iconic Alabama quality. When people think of Alabama, what comes to mind? Paul “Bear” Bryant, George Wallace, Hank Williams, etc., etc. Other than Jeff Sessions, Roy Moore is becoming one of this generation’s best-known political icons of the state. That is invaluable in a high-stakes political campaign.