In final days before Alabama vote, will Donald Trump’s support tip scales towards accused child molester Roy Moore?
Moore has denied the accusations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls and said the women were engaged in ‘ritual defamation’ against him
US President Donald Trump has jumped into a contentious Senate race in recent days, supporting embattled Republican Roy Moore in an election that neared the finish line under the glare of a national spotlight.
Trump’s 11th-hour imprint was splashed across the front pages of the state’s biggest newspapers over the weekend, as he championed Moore at a rally across the state border with Florida, recorded a phone call urging voters to vote Republican and branded Doug Jones – Moore’s Democratic opponent – a “Pelosi/Schumer Liberal Democrat” to his more than 44 million followers on Twitter.
But even as Trump has remained popular among Republican voters in this staunchly conservative state – and a troubling figure to many Democrats – it was unclear as the campaigns honed their closing arguments over the weekend how much impact the president would have in a race that has become all about Moore.
A long-polarising figure, Moore’s reputation for controversy grew last month after The Washington Post published the accounts of four women who said Moore made advances toward them when they were teens and he was in his 30s. One of the accusers said she was 14 at the time.
Several voters said in brief interviews that Trump was not a leading factor in their decision. Democrats said their vote reflected their protest of Moore’s positions and controversies, while Republicans said they admired Moore for weathering accusations they believe are false, for his conservatism and for refusing to give into the Republican establishment.
In Blount County, where Trump won nearly 90 per cent of vote last year, several Republicans running errands and having lunch said they had decided to vote for Moore long before Trump told them to do so – and despite the published reports.
“I think the voters have basically made their minds up because they see through this garbage,” said David Clevenger, 61, a Moore supporter who also voted for Trump last year, and who said he does not believe the women who have accused Moore. Asked what impact Trump’s endorsement will make at this point, he shook his head and said: “None.”
His wife of more than 40 years, Teresa Clevenger, agreed and added: “We believe in thinking for ourselves.”
To the southwest, in Democrat-heavy Birmingham, Chris and Debbie Soniat, a married couple who volunteered for Jones, said their vote would be about stopping Moore than about stopping Trump.
“In a way, Roy Moore is just his own, weird – I mean, I think he would institute sort of his own version of sharia law if he had he the chance, you know?” said Chris Soniat, 68, a self-identified independent. “Banning homosexuality. Banning Muslims from participating.”
“To me, he represents the worst of the values of the Old South,” said Debbie Soniat, speaking of Moore.
Yet Trump’s support for Moore has been qualified. While the president has made a big push for Moore, he has done so from afar – avoiding joint photo ops or other visuals that could haunt Trump if Moore loses. Trump appeared to be setting himself up to claim credit if Moore wins while allowing himself to claim some distance if he loses.
In a state where ideological conservatism and passionate opposition to abortion define the Republican platform, many of those Republican voters were expected to remain out of reach to Jones, who supports abortion rights.
Trump has not been shy about picking a fight. He has repeatedly branded Jones as an ally of polarising national Democratic figures including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer.
If Jones wins on Tuesday, the Republican’s Senate majority would narrow to 51-49, making the already difficult task of shepherding a legislative agenda even more difficult for Trump.
Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said Trump recorded a call supporting Moore on Saturday. On Friday, Trump touted Moore at a rally in Pensacola, Florida. His appearance was widely covered by Alabama news outlets.
The Moore campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the recorded calls.
Moore has eagerly embraced Trump’s last-minute campaign on his behalf and has cast himself as a natural ally of the president who will go to go to Washington and immediately champion his agenda.
The former judge seemed keen on letting Trump lead the way for him down the stretch. Moore did not host any publicly announced events over the weekend, and his tweets have pertained almost exclusively to the president’s support.
Senate Republican leaders had called on Moore to drop out of the race in the wake of a series of accusations that Moore, now 70, aggressively pursued teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Moore has denied the accusations and said in an interview with a local television station over the weekend that the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct were engaged in “ritual defamation” against him.
“I do not know them. I had no encounter with them. I have never molested anyone,” Moore said. “When I saw the pictures on the advertisements of my opponent, I did not recognise any of these people.”
Moore has spoken inconsistently about the allegations against him, telling Fox News host Sean Hannity in a radio interview last month that he may have dated young girls years ago – with parental permission – but that he did not recall dating any of the women who had accused him of making unwanted advances when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers. He said in that interview that he knew two of the women when they were teens, and described each as a “good girl”.
Moore said a victory for him would end the story.
“I’ve stood up for moral values, so they’re attacking me in that way,” he said. “When this race is over, on the 12th of December, it will be over.”