WASHINGTON - Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore denied any sexual misconduct in a radio interview with Sean Hannity and said he never knew Leigh Corfman, the woman who accused him of initiating sexual contact when she was 14 and he was 32. "I don't know Miss Corfman from anybody," said Moore. "The allegations are completely false. I believe they're politically motivated."
When pressed by Hannity, Moore said that he knew several of the other women who spoke to The Washington Post, which published the allegations Thursday, but did not "remember going out on dates." He admitted taking "young girls" out after returning to America following his service in Vietnam, but denied serving Gloria Thacker Deason, one of the accusers, rose wine, saying that any date would have happened in a dry county.
"She said she believed she was underaged," said Moore. "As I recall she was 19 or older. I never provided intoxicating liquor to a minor. I seem to remember her as a good girl."
Meanwhile, Republican leaders scrambled Friday to limit the political damage from allegations that Moore initiated sexual encounters with a 14-year-old girl and other teenagers nearly four decades ago, even as Moore pushed forward with his campaign.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled out of a joint committee it had set up with Moore, depriving him of a fundraising vehicle for the final weeks of the campaign. But current and former national party leaders admitted that they have little power to actually force Moore from the race. The election is Dec. 12.
Strategists also backed away from discussions for a Republican write-in campaign in the state, saying there was little hope of success if Moore stays in the race - and raising the possibility that Moore's scandal will remain a problem for the party into the 2018 midterm elections, as candidates are asked to take a position on the abuse of minors and intergenerational dating.
"Other Republicans are going to be dragged into it," said Steven Law, the CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a political committee affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that opposed Moore's nomination.
The comments came a day after The Post published a story in which a woman said Moore had initiated a sexual encounter with her in 1979, when she was 14 and he was 32. Three other women said he had taken them on dates when they were teenagers.
Allies of Moore in Alabama attacked the accusers in an effort to protect Moore. "What these women are doing is such a shame," said Alabama state Rep. Ed Henry, R, in an interview Friday with Huntsville station WVNN-AM. "As a father of two daughters, they discredit when women actually are abused and taken advantage of. They're not using their supposed experience to find justice. They're just using it as a weapon, a political weapon."
At the same time, more national party leaders came forward to call on Moore to leave the race. "Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections," said Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, before referencing the woman who had accused Moore of inappropriate sexual contact. "I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside."
Romney joined his former rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in calling for Moore to step down immediately. Other Republican Senate leaders, including McConnell, have called on Moore to step down on the condition that the reports prove to be true - but they have not yet described a process for assessing the truth of the claims.
Democrats familiar with the campaign of their nominee, Doug Jones, said no new ad buys or investments were planned to take advantage of the story.
None of the women who alleged teenage relationships with Moore sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore's Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls.
Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don't know one another.
In interviews since the publication of the story, state officials have said either that they would investigate the claims or raised questions about the timing of the revelations, suggesting that the accusers were politically motivated.
"I will hold judgment until we know the facts," Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said Thursday evening.
Officials in Alabama said the opinions of national Republican leaders would have little effect on the state party. Others said political considerations would likely be a priority over the accusations.
"I think Alabama would elect Satan if he could get Obamacare repealed," said Jonathan Gray, a Republican consultant in the state who is not working on the Senate race this year.
In an interview Friday with the Religion News Service, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. predicted that Moore would be vindicated.
"The same thing happened to President [Donald] Trump a few weeks before his election last year except it was several women making allegations," said Falwell. "And I believe the judge is telling the truth."
Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, a Republican, told the Washington Examiner that biblical stories offered a justification for the acts Moore is accused of committing. "Take Joseph and Mary," Zeigler said. "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus."
Even before the accusations became public, Senate Republicans had been asked repeatedly about Moore's more extreme positions on the proper role of the Christian faith in American political life.
Now, party leaders expect new questions about the Moore accusations.
"I'm prepping my candidate for what he is going to say if he is asked," said one Republican campaign manager for a top 2018 race, who asked to speak anonymously to not draw attention to the race. "At the very least, it is something that everyone is going to have to answer: Do you think Roy Moore at the age of 32 with a 14-year-old is like Mary and Joseph?"
During the 2012 election, Republican Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana made inaccurate or controversial comments about rape that allowed Democrats to make inroads with women voters across the country. Republican leaders later said those comments helped prevent Republicans from winning the Senate majority that year.
Law blamed former White House aide Stephen Bannon and his website Brietbart news for creating problems that could endanger Republicans in 2018. "This is what Stephen K. Bannon's French Revolution looks like, chaos and embarrassment for the Republican Party," Law said.
To some conservative pundits, the lesson of previous scandals was that Republicans had been bullied too easily. On Thursday evening, Hannity devoted half of his show to the Moore story, noting that in some high-profile cases, such as the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a "rush to judgment" had ensnared innocent people.
"Herman Cain's going up in the polls, then the day he gets out - nothing," said Hannity, referring to a wave of 2011 sexual harassment relevations that sank the Republican businessman's presidential bid.
"There's a very strange propensity of sexual allegations to suddenly become politically useful in the run-up to an election, or when someone stands up for the principles of the republic, like Clarence Thomas, and needs to be taken down," said Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser who became a Fox News contributor this week.
Dean Young, a longtime friend and adviser to Moore, said that Alabama voters would likely weigh the accusations against Moore with the sources that published them.
"This is a test of the people of Alabama and the people of this nation," said Young. "Can the people of Alabama be tricked by the liberal fake news or not?"