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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Republicans leaders rally round Moore despite misconduct claims

President Donald Trump, who initially backed a different candidate for the Republican nomination, recorded a telephone message for waverers saying a vote for Mr Moore was a vote for his 'Make America Great Again' agenda

A banner promoting Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore is pictured on the side of a building in Birmingham, Alabama, US, on December 10, 2017. Carlo Allegri / Reuters
A banner promoting Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore is pictured on the side of a building in Birmingham, Alabama, US, on December 10, 2017. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Republican leaders are rallying in support of Roy Moore, their candidate in Alabama’s special Senate election on Tuesday despite allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.

President Donald Trump, who initially backed a different candidate for the Republican nomination, recorded a telephone message for waverers saying a vote for Mr Moore was a vote for his “Make America Great Again” agenda.

However, a string of allegations that the former judge chased after teenage girls when he was in his 30s has turned a solid Republican seat into a tight contest.

It pits Mr Moore, a 70-year-old conservative Christian and former state judge, against Doug Jones, a 63-year-old former US attorney, in perhaps the biggest test yet of Mr Trump’s base, and whether voters are prepared to dismiss serious allegations about a candidate as “fake news”.

The president offered an unqualified endorsement of Mr Moore on Friday at a rally just across the state line in Pensacola, Florida.

On Sunday, details of his call emerged.

“We need Roy voting for us and stopping illegal immigration and crime, rebuilding a stronger military and protecting the Second Amendment and our pro-life values,” he says in a recording obtained by ABC News. “But if Alabama elects liberal Democrat Doug Jones, all of our progress will be stopped full.”

Mr Trump’s position puts party agenda ahead of worries about Mr Moore’s past.

Several women have accused him of sexual misconduct. They include driving a 14-year-old girl to his home in the woods, where he allegedly assaulted her, and “hounding” teenagers at a shopping mall.

Mr Moore has refused calls to resign.

However, he all but disappeared from the campaign trail as the controversy dominated the final week.

He reappeared on Sunday for an interview with The Voice of Alabama Politics on local cable TV to repeat his denials, claiming he was the victim of “ritual defamation”.

“I did not know them,” he said of his accusers. “I had no encounter with them. I never molested anyone, and for them to say that, I don't know why they're saying it, but it's not true.”

The controversy has Democrats sensing a win-win scenario: either they pick up the seat and narrow the Republican Senate majority to 51-49 or Mr Moore’s presence in Washington gives them an easy target at a time when allegations of sexual assault unsettle many figures in public life.

Dozens of men have been forced from positions of power in politics, the media and Hollywood after the New York Times revealed how Harvey Weinstein had used his status as a giant of the film world to harass and abuse women.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, gave an insight into the sea change in American society when she said that any woman who has felt violated or mistreated by a man has a right to speak out, even if she was accusing Mr Trump.

“Women who accuse anyone should be heard,” Ms Haley said on CBS's Face the Nation. “They should be heard, and they should be dealt with.”

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Yet Mr Moore’s strategy of denial has kept him in the race. Although one poll had him trailing his Democratic rival by four points this month, that lead is reversed in a running average of surveys maintained by Real Clear Politics.

Nate Lerner, executive director of the Democratic Coalition, who is campaigning for Mr Jones in the state, said the blanket denials had worn down Republican voters.

“I think they got numb to it,” he said. “I think you are seeing some of those supporters who initially jumped ship trickling back, which is why the polls remain so close.”

He added that the allegations had made it harder to remind voters that Mr Moore was a divisive candidate before any hint of a sex scandal emerged.

He has argued that homosexuality should be illegal and is opposed to gay marriage, a stance that last year saw him suspended as the state’s chief justice for telling judges to ignore a Supreme Court ruling legalising same-sex unions.

He was removed from the same post in 2003 when he ignored a court order demanding he remove a granite monument to the Ten Commandments from outside the Alabama Judicial Building.

But his conservative positions have won him the backing of Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former chief strategist. He was due to campaign in the state on Monday as he assembles a slew of candidates to reshape the Republican Party in the president’s populist image.

As a result, allegations of sexual misconduct have been dismissed as part of a liberal conspiracy by some voters, said Mr Lerner.

“It has almost rallied his base, made it us versus them, solidified his support and made them sceptical about anything coming out of the Jones camp,” he said.

The same goes for Republican leaders. The national party leadership is now backing his campaign reversing its position from a fortnight ago.

And the majority of state officials, with one eye on their own re-election battles next year and wary of crossing an energetic Trump base, are also backing Mr Moore, according to a survey by The Associated Press.

That leaves moderate Republicans with a dilemma. They could write in an alternative name on their ballots — such as Lee Busby, a retired Marine colonel who entered the race once the papers had already been finalised — or simply stay at home.

Either way, the special election in Alabama, where a controversial candidate is endorsed by a polarising president, could provide the first indications of how next year’s pivotal congressional mid-term elections will play out.