By Jeff Mason and David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump finds the sexual misconduct allegations against U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore “troubling” and thinks he should leave the race if they are true, the White House said on Thursday, as party leaders in Alabama stood by their nominee.
Trump’s position did not go as far as other Republican leaders in Washington who have said they believe the women accusing the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice and have demanded Moore withdraw from the race before the Dec. 12 vote.
“The president believes that these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said at a news briefing.
“The president said in his statement earlier this week that if the allegations are true, then Roy Moore should step aside. He still firmly believes that,” she said.
Asked if the president’s endorsement of Moore still stands, Sanders said Trump thinks Alabama voters should decide the winner of the race.
Trump supported the Republican National Committee’s decision to withdraw resources from the contest, Sanders added.
In the past week, multiple women have accused Moore of sexual improprieties or unwanted romantic advances they said occurred decades ago. Some of the women were teenagers at the time, and he was in his 30s.
Moore, 70, has denied any wrongdoing. The married Christian conservative has said he is the victim of a witch hunt and has refused to drop out of the race.
The allegations are “not only untrue but they have no evidence to support them,” Moore told a news conference on Thursday after about 20 supporters, including religious leaders, said they still backed his candidacy.
In a tweet, he accused U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and others of trying “to steal this election from the people of Alabama.”
The Alabama Republican Party on Thursday said its 21-member steering committee would continue to support Moore.
“He deserves to be presumed innocent of the accusations unless proven otherwise,” state party Chairwoman Terry Lathan said in a statement.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the allegations by the women.
Before the allegations surfaced, Moore was heavily favored to defeat Democrat Doug Jones in the special election next month.
Moore scored a decisive Republican primary victory in September over Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill the vacant seat after Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney general earlier this year.
Trump backed Strange in the primary but threw his support to Moore after Strange’s defeat.
A poll released on Wednesday by the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm showed Jones surging to a 12-point lead since the accusations became public.
A Democratic win in Alabama would be a blow to Trump’s agenda and shift the political outlook for next year’s congressional elections, giving Democrats a stronger shot at recapturing control of the Senate. Republicans currently hold 52 seats in the 100-member upper chamber.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Alexander; Writing by Mohammad Zargham and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)