Republicans' lock on an Alabama seat in the U.S. Senate was thrown into doubt Thursday when the party's religious-right candidate was accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32.
The explosive allegation, in a Washington Post report, led Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Senate Republicans to call on Roy Moore to abandon his candidacy in the Dec. 12 special election -- if the charge is true.
Moore, 70, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called the accusation "completely false."
Nonetheless, a seat long viewed as safely Republican was suddenly looking less so. At a time when Republicans hold a narrow 52-seat majority in the Senate, GOP leaders were alarmed, all the more so after the party was thrashed in elections on Tuesday.
"They cannot afford to lose this," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Moore, whose open bigotry has embarrassed Republicans in less conservative parts of the country, was never warmly embraced by national GOP leaders. The Post report came amid a burst of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other prominent men in entertainment, business, politics and the news media.
Leigh Corfman, now 53, told the Post that Moore first approached her when she was sitting with her mother on a bench outside an Alabama courtroom down the hall from his office.
Moore got her phone number and, days later, took her on a 30-minute drive to his home in the woods, where he kissed her and told her she was pretty, according to Corfman.
On a second visit, he took off her shirt and pants, stripped to his underwear, touched her over her bra and underpants, and guided her hand to touch his crotch, she told the Post.
She said she asked him to take her home, and he did.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the allegations against Moore "disqualifying."
"He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of," McCain said on Twitter.
It is too late for Moore to legally withdraw from the Senate race. The ballots are already printed, and many absentee voters have already submitted theirs.
Republicans were scrambling to figure out whether Sen. Luther Strange, who now holds the seat, could run a viable campaign as a write-in candidate against Moore's Democratic rival, Doug Jones.
Strange, who was appointed to the seat to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions when President Donald Trump named Sessions U.S. attorney general, lost the Republican primary to Moore.
On Capitol Hill, Strange told reporters that the Post report was "very, very disturbing." He ignored a question on whether he might launch a write-in campaign.
Three other women told the Post that Moore, when he was in his early 30s, pursued them when they were between 16 and 18 years old, but never forced sex on them. The age of consent for sex under Alabama law is 16, as it was at the time of the alleged incidents.
None of the women came forward to the Post. A reporter for the newspaper heard allegations that Moore had sought relationships with teenage girls, and the Post subsequently found and interviewed the four women.
Moore told the Post in a written statement: "These allegations are completely false and are a desperate political attack by the National Democrat Party and The Washington Post on this campaign."
Moore has run as a firebrand stressing cultural appeals. He lamented "the awful calamity of abortion and sodomy and perverse behavior and murders and shootings and road rage" as "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins."
He has also referred to Native Americans and Asian Americans as "reds and yellows."
Moore was ousted from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for defying a federal order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a state courthouse. Voters elected him chief justice again in 2012, but he was suspended for refusing to follow the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. He later resigned.
In Alabama, supporters came to Moore's defense. State Auditor Jim Zeigler invoked the Bible when he told The Washington Examiner: "Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus."
"There's just nothing immoral or illegal here," he said. "Maybe just a little bit unusual."
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