VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (Reuters) – Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the Republican insurgent running for the U.S. Senate, on Saturday again flatly denied he had initiated a sexual encounter in 1979 with a 14-year-old girl, insisting the accusation was “fake news.”
In his first public appearance since a Washington Post story on Thursday detailing allegations of sexual misconduct by the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, Moore portrayed himself a victim of a baseless attack on his character.
“I am not guilty of sexual misconduct with anyone,” the conservative Christian told his audience of about 150 people at a Veterans Day event at a public library in Vestavia Hills, outside Alabama’s state capital Birmingham.
The story was ”a desperate attempt to ruin my career,“ he said. ”It is completely false and untrue.”
Moore, who defeated an establishment Republican in a hard-fought primary battle, said the allegations were an attempt to sabotage his candidacy, noting they surfaced just four weeks before a special election to fill a seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became U.S. attorney general. Before the scandal broke, he was a strong favorite to win in a state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate in a quarter of a century.
”This article is a prime example of fake news. We do not intend to let anyone behind this story stop this campaign,“ he said. ”We fully expect the people of Alabama to see through this charade.”
The scandal presents a quandary to the Republicans, who hold a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate and cannot afford to lose the safe Alabama.
Democrats, emboldened by election victories in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, have sought to capitalise on the accusations in support of the party’s Alabama nominee, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who remains a long shot.
As Moore entered the hall on Saturday, followed by a pack of news media cameras, about 10 protesters holding cardboard signs chanted “No Moore.” Some of the placards read, “Grabby Old Pervert” and “Pedophiles in jail, not the Senate.”
“Moore should drop out right now,” said Lisa Sharlach, 49, a teacher from Vestavia Hills who was among the protesters. “There are real victims here and he’s unfit to serve in any elected office, now or ever.”
But Paul Jourdan, 73, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, was one of those who came to the meeting to show support for Moore.
“The judge is my man,” said Jourdan, a Birmingham resident. “He’s got my vote and I’ll tell everybody to support him.”
He said he thought the allegations were false. “This is totally fake news – it can’t be real,” he said. ”What else is it but political propaganda.”
Moore’s appearance came a day after the national campaign wing for Senate Republicans cut fund-raising ties with Moore, a sign the party was abandoning a candidacy that U.S. President Donald Trump’s former political strategist Steve Bannon has championed.
Numerous prominent Republican lawmakers have called on Moore either to drop out immediately, as Arizona Senator John McCain did on Thursday, or said he should do so if the allegations prove true, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But several Alabama Republican officials did not waver in their support of Moore, who scored a decisive primary victory in September over Luther Strange, the incumbent appointed to fill the seat on an interim basis after Sessions was named attorney general.
Moore has been accused by a woman of initiating a sexual encounter in 1979 when she was aged 14 and he was a 32-year-old prosecutor, the Washington Post reported. Three other women said he pursued them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18, though none accused him of sexual contact.
Moore, now 70, denied any wrongdoing on Friday during an appearance on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s national radio show.
He was twice forced out of his position as chief justice, once for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse and once for defying the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Democrats have highlighted his penchant for incendiary statements about Muslims and homosexuality.
Reporting By Frank McGurty; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama