WASHINGTON - A month before Alabama's special election, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore abruptly faced lurid allegations Thursday of sexual misconduct with minors decades ago - and an immediate backlash from party leaders who demanded he get out of the race if the accusations prove true.
The instant fallout followed a Washington Post report in which an Alabama woman said Moore, then a 32-year-old assistant district attorney, had sexual contact with her when she was 14. Three other women interviewed by the Post said Moore, now 70, approached them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s. All four women spoke on the record to the Post.
The Moore campaign denied the report as "the very definition of fake news and intentional defamation."
Defiant as ever, Moore himself issued a fund-raising appeal asking for emergency donations in a "spiritual battle."
"I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values," he wrote. "I will NEVER GIVE UP the fight!"
Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice, has made his name in Republican politics through his public devotion to hardline Christian conservative positions. He was twice removed from his Supreme Court position, once for disobeying a federal court order to remove a 5,200-pound granite Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building, and later for urging state probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.
On Thursday, senior Republicans swiftly called for Moore to step aside from the Senate race if the allegations are shown to be true. And the man he defeated in the Republican primary, current Sen. Luther Strange, left open the possibility he may re-enter the campaign.
Moore's name cannot be removed from the ballot before the Dec. 12 special election even if he withdraws from the race, according to John Bennett, a spokesman for the Alabama secretary of state. A write-in campaign remains possible, Bennett added.
Strange wouldn't immediately say whether he would reenter the race.
"Well, that's getting the cart ahead of the horse. But I will have something to say about that. Let me do some more research," he told the Associated Press.
The Alabama special election is to fill the vacancy created when President Trump tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions to serve as the U.S. attorney general. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange in the interim.
Reaction after the Post story was published online was swift and severe.
"The allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore are deeply troubling," said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who leads the Senate GOP campaign arm. "If these allegations are found to be true, Roy Moore must drop out of the Alabama special Senate election."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that viewpoint.
The intensity of the reaction may partly reflect lingering bad feelings from the primary contest between Strange and Moore, held in late September. Much of the Republican establishment - including McConnell and Trump - supported Strange, while the GOP's more conservative flank - including former Trump strategist Steve Bannon - backed Moore.
Neither Bannon nor the White House had an immediate comment. But on the ground in Alabama, some Republicans were willing to downplay the allegations.
"Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus," Alabama state Auditor Jim Ziegler told the Washington Examiner.
Moore's Democratic challenger, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, issued a brief statement: "Roy Moore needs to answer these serious charges."
In the small eastern Alabama town of Heflin, a handful of people interviewed by the AP indicated they were indifferent to the allegations if not disbelieving of them.
"He seems like a good guy to me," said Pat Hurst, a resident of the town just off Interstate 20 about 75 miles east of Birmingham. "I assume everybody has made some kind of mistake in life, but I wouldn't think he needs to step aside unless they prove that he is guilty of some bad sexual conduct."