(Bloomberg) -- Three more women accused U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of making unwanted advances, while his lawyer sought to discredit a previous accuser as a broadening scandal weighs on the Alabama Republican’s poll numbers.
The Washington Post published accounts Wednesday of two women describing interactions with Moore in Alabama in the 1970s. One woman said she was a high school senior when Moore called her school to ask her out and gave her an unwanted “forceful” kiss while on a date. A second woman told the paper Moore persistently asked her out while she was an employee of a store in the local mall.
Earlier Wednesday, AL.com, the website for several Alabama newspapers, quoted Tina Johnson of Gadsden as saying that Moore grabbed her buttocks in 1991, when she was 28 and was visiting his law office on legal business. "He didn’t pinch it; he grabbed it," she was quoted as saying.
The crisis atmosphere surrounding the campaign has been building since last Thursday when the Washington Post published an account from a woman who said Moore initiated sexual contact with her when she was 14. The Post named three other women who said when they were teenagers Moore pursued them for dates.
More has denied any wrongdoing and has said the claims are part of a politically motivated attack to derail his campaign just weeks ahead of the Dec. 12 special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general.
On Wednesday, Moore’s campaign went on the offensive against one of his accusers.
The campaign challenged the credibility of Beverly Young Nelson, who on Monday publicly accused Moore of sexually assaulting her in the late 1970s, when she was 16. Phillip Jauregui, a lawyer and longtime Moore political adviser, said that when Moore was a judge, he presided over her divorce case -- challenging Nelson’s statement that she hadn’t seen him since the alleged incident. Jauregui also questioned the authenticity of handwriting in Nelson’s yearbook that she said was Moore’s.
On Tuesday, Moore spoke to a friendly crowd of a few hundred people at the Walker Springs Road Baptist Church in the southwest Alabama town of Jackson. Moore’s message was largely the same one he’d been delivering before the accusations.
“Obviously I’ve made a few people mad,’’ Moore told the friendly crowd. “I’m the only one that can unite Democrats and Republicans, because I seem to be opposed by both.”
Moore is counting on his core message -- that the nation needs to “go back to the recognition of God” -- to hold his base among evangelical Christians through the election against Democrat Doug Jones. Polls show Moore still has a chance to win, though he’s losing support.
In Washington, Moore’s persistence has White House and Republican congressional leaders conferring and preparing for some tough choices about what to do next.
President Donald Trump, just back from a 12-day trip to Asia, is set to get a briefing from aides on the matter, according to an administration official. Although Trump declined to comment directly on Moore while he was traveling in Asia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he brought the situation up in a conversation with the president last Friday. Both men had endorsed Moore’s opponent in the Republican primary runoff. McConnell said he’s also discussed it with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence.
In the call with Pence, McConnell discussed the idea of having Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed to his old Senate seat if Moore wins the election and then is expelled by his colleagues, according to a person familiar with the exchange. The person said McConnell also floated the idea of Sessions running as a write-in candidate for the seat.
However, a person close to Sessions said this week that the attorney general has told people at home in Alabama that he’s not interested in returning to his old Senate seat.
On Wednesday morning, Moore faulted McConnell on Twitter, saying the majority leader is “attempting to subvert the will of Alabamians yet again, this time helping to elect a far-left Democrat!”
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee withdrew from a joint fundraising agreement benefiting Moore, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission, following a similar action last week by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Even Sean Hannity, a Fox News host, has backed off his earlier defense of Moore. He said on his show Tuesday night that the candidate should be given 24 hours to explain conflicting comments he’s made about the allegations or quit the race.
Numerous Republican lawmakers have urged Moore to withdraw from the campaign. The former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice has denied the most serious accusations, though he left open the possibility that he dated teenagers after returning from military service.
The election is “up to the people of Alabama to make this decision,” McConnell said Tuesday. “From a Republican point of view, we would hope to save the seat, and that might require a write-in, and all of those things are under discussion.”
Even if Moore can be persuaded to withdraw, his name would still be on the ballot, creating the possibility of confusion and court challenges. A write-in campaign by another Republican is a long shot, given the short time until the election and the difficulty of getting voters to successfully fill out a ballot.
If Moore stays in the race and defeats Jones, McConnell and Trump and national party officials face a dilemma. With the possibility that having Moore in the Senate will taint the party going into next year’s congressional elections, Republicans will have to decide whether to take the rare step of voting to expel him. The last senator discharged was Jesse D. Bright of Indiana in 1862, one of 14 lawmakers thrown out of the chamber for supporting the confederacy during the Civil War.
Jones has largely stayed away from fanning the flames of the controversy and has instead focused on what his campaign strategist, Joe Trippi, called “kitchen-table issues.” While he’s managed to pick up support as some voters back away from Moore, the race remains a toss-up. Two recent polls found Moore still ahead and two others showed the contest tied or Jones with a slight lead.
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