By John Whitesides
HENAGAR, Ala. (Reuters) - Embattled Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore said on Monday the allegations of sexual misconduct against him were evidence of the moral failings of leaders in Washington and meant to distract attention from the real issues.
Hitting the campaign trail for the first time in more than two weeks, when the charges first disrupted the race, Moore said the allegations were false and malicious and politicians in both parties were desperate to see him fail.
"This is simply dirty politics. It's a sign of the immorality of our times," Moore told about 125 supporters who jammed a rural community center in northeast Alabama, speaking just over two weeks before a Dec. 12 special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was appointed U.S. attorney general earlier this year.
Republican lawmakers in Washington, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, have rushed to distance themselves from Moore and called for him to step down from the race after he was accused by several women of sexual assault and misconduct when they were teenagers and he was in his early 30s. Reuters has not been able to independently verify those allegations.
Moore said the allegations were designed to distract from "the true issues" facing people and that Senate leaders understood he was difficult to manage and did not want to deal with him.
"Politicians will stop at nothing to win an election," said Moore, who has accused the media of joining in the effort to malign him.
Outside the rally, a man wearing a Moore sticker pushed away a cameraman as he attempted to film Moore's arrival, local media reported. A reporter for the Birmingham News, in a tweet, identified the man as Tony Goolsby, the DeKalb County chairman for the Moore campaign.
President Donald Trump defended Moore last week, but a White House official said Trump would not campaign for Moore before the Dec. 12 special election.
Trump has repeatedly slammed Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, calling him a liberal and saying that Jones would not vote for a tax overhaul plan now being debated in Congress.
Republicans hold a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate and are eager to maintain their advantage to pass Trump's legislative agenda on taxes, healthcare and other priorities.
But Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama told reporters on Monday he had not voted for Moore, writing in a candidate instead. He did not say whom he wrote in.
Moore had largely stayed off the campaign trail and avoided questions since the allegations first surfaced in the Washington Post. The Jones campaign has taken notice and begun criticizing his absence.
Before the rally, a Moore representative warned the crowd against any "outbursts" and said Moore would not be taking questions.
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Leslie Adler)