By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump defended embattled U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore on Tuesday, saying the Alabama Republican had denied allegations of sexual misconduct and emphasizing that he did not want Moore's Democratic opponent to win.
Trump previously said that Moore should step aside if the allegations were true.
Speaking to reporters at the White House before leaving Washington for Florida, Trump left open the possibility of campaigning for Moore, saying he would make an announcement on that next week.
The president also ripped into Moore's opponent, Democrat Doug Jones, describing the former prosecutor as liberal and soft on crime.
The comments represented a shift in strategy for the White House, which previously tried to keep its distance from the controversy sparked by a Washington Post report detailing accusations by four women that Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. More women have since spoken out with allegations of their own.
"He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also," Trump said.
Trump's position was a break from that of other national Republicans. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other prominent lawmakers have pressed Moore to quit the race.
It also contrasted with comments from his daughter Ivanka Trump, a White House adviser who told the Associated Press there was a "special place in hell for people who prey on children." She said she had no reason to doubt the women's accounts.
Moore, 70, has denied any wrongdoing. The married Christian conservative has said he is the victim of a witch hunt and has declined to drop out of the race.
Reuters has not been able to confirm any of the accusations independently.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump himself faced accusations from several women that he had in the past made unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate personal remarks about them. Trump denied the allegations, accusing Democrats and the media of a smear campaign.
'DON'T NEED LIBERAL PERSON IN THERE'
Trump supported Moore's opponent, Senator Luther Strange, in the Republican primary race for the open U.S. Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but he backed Moore after the former Alabama chief justice won the nomination.
Republicans hold a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate. They are eager to hold on to that advantage to pass Trump's legislative agenda on taxes, healthcare and other priorities.
Since the accusations against Moore were reported, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders has said repeatedly that Alabama voters should decide the election and called the allegations "troubling."
The White House also backed the Republican National Committee's decision to withdraw support for Moore.
But the administration's position appeared to start evolving this week when White House counselor Kellyanne Conway criticized Jones during an interview with Fox News and said the White House wanted a Republican to win the seat in order to support Trump's plan for a tax overhaul.
Trump, who had declined until Tuesday to answer questions about the Alabama race, was prepared with a list of complaints about Jones when facing reporters on the south lawn of the White House.
"I can tell you one thing for sure: We don't need a liberal person in there, a Democrat, Jones," Trump said.
"I've looked at his record. It's terrible on crime. It's terrible on the border. It's terrible on the military. I can tell you for a fact, we do not need somebody that's going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad with the military, bad for the Second Amendment."
Before the allegations came to light, Moore was heavily favored to defeat Jones, a former federal prosecutor, in the special election on Dec. 12. Two opinion polls last week showed Moore now trailing Jones.
"Doug believes the women, and that the people of Alabama will hold Roy Moore accountable," Jones' spokesman, Sebastian Kitchen, said in a statement.
Among those prosecuted by Jones when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama were two former Ku Klux Klan members for their involvement in a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four girls.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Eric Walsh and Chris Kenning; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)