WASHINGTON - Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore declined Friday to rule out that he may have dated girls in their late teens when he was in his 30s, though he said he did not remember any such encounters and described such behavior as inappropriate.
"If I did, I'm not going to dispute these things, but I don't remember anything like that," Moore said on the Sean Hannity radio program, when asked if he dated 17- or 18-year-old girls at the time.
In the same interview, Moore denied outright the claim of Leigh Corfman that he had initiated sexual encounters with her when she was 14. "I don't know Ms. Corfman from anybody," he said. "The allegations of sexual misconduct with her are completely false."
He did recall knowing two other accusers, Gloria Thacker Deason and Debbie Wesson Gibson, as well as their parents. "I knew her as a friend," he said of Gibson, who has said that Moore asked her on a date when she was 17 after speaking at her high school. "If we did go out on dates, then we did, but I do not remember that," Moore said.
When asked about Deason's claim that he provided her wine on dates when she was 18, Moore said: "In this county, it's a dry county. We never would have had liquor."
Alcohol sales began in Etowah County in 1972, years before the alleged encounter, and the Washington Post confirmed that wine was for sale at the time at the pizzeria where Deason remembered Moore taking her when she was under the legal drinking age of 19.
The legal age of consent for sexual activity in Alabama is 16, as it was at the time of these alleged encounters.
"After my return from the military, I dated a lot of young ladies," Moore told Hannity.
When Hannity asked Moore again if he could unequivocally say he never dated any girl in her late teens when he was 32, Moore said, "That's out of my customary behavior." Hannity said he would not want his 17- or 18-year-old daughter dating a 32-year-old. "I wouldn't either," said Moore.
Moore's comments came as Republican leaders scrambled Friday to limit the political damage from allegations Moore initiated sexual encounters with teenagers nearly four decades ago.
Two Republian senators - Steve Daines of Montana and Mike Lee of Utah - withdrew their endorsements of Moore following his interview with Hannity.
"Having read the detailed description of the incidents, as well as the response from Judge Moore and his campaign, I can no longer endorse his candidacy for the US Senate," Lee wrote in a tweet.
In a tweet, Daines offered less explanation - "I am pulling my endorsement and support for Roy Moore for U.S. Senate" - but he also retweeted Lee's statement.
And the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled out of a joint committee it had set up with Moore, depriving him of a fund-raising 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, a Republican, 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.
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 Breitbart 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.
In the interview with Hannity, Moore desciped allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors as a false attack by his political opponents.
Moore called it a "completely manufactured story meant to defrock this campaign," adding: "They don't want to acknowledge that there is a God. And we have refused to debate them because of their very liberal stance on transgenderism."