Trump straddle: Won’t stump for Moore, yet blasts Dem foe

WASHINGTON (AP) — Playing all sides in the Alabama Senate race, President Donald Trump made it known Monday he won’t set foot in the state on behalf of embattled Republican Roy Moore, even as he intensified his insistence that voters must never elect Moore’s Democratic foe.

In search of safe political ground, Trump is embracing a tried-and-true tactic before the Dec. 12 special election. Weighing political needs, loyalty to his base supporters and his own struggles against allegations of sexual impropriety, the president is staking out a position that should bring him the least political exposure.

Trump has repeatedly assailed Democratic candidate Doug Jones, has publicly defended Moore against allegations of child molestation and has broken with other GOP leaders calling on Moore to get out of the race. On the other hand, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday the president has no plans for an in-person appearance on Moore’s behalf and in fact is too busy to “do anything between now and Election Day” for the candidate.

In addition, the president previously signed off on a decision by the Republican National Committee to cut off support for Moore’s campaign.

Still, Trump had held the door open to personal campaigning for Moore last week, when he all but endorsed the pugnacious conservative’s candidacy while criticizing Jones. But he’s carefully stopping short of that actual endorsement.

For weeks the center state in the Alabama race has been held by accusations that Moore, now 70, sexually molested or initiated sexual contact with two teens, ages 14 and 16 — and tried to date several others — while he was in his 30s. Moore has denied the allegations of misconduct and has said he never dated “underage” women.

Trump has been burned in this race before. He traveled to Alabama months ago to back Moore’s Republican primary opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, who was then defeated in a September rout.

Moore had the backing of the GOP’s conservative and populist wings, including Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, but Trump acceded to requests from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to try to boost Strange. Trump later seethed to White House aides that the episode left him looking politically weak.

Also, appearing with Moore now could expose Trump to a politically unpalatable image as allegations of sexual misconduct in politics, entertainment, business and the media fill the news. As he looks toward his own re-election in 2020, he doesn’t want new attention focused on his own accusations of sexual impropriety in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election.

The White House clarified Monday that Trump isn’t contesting the authenticity of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, and for which he issued a rare apology. “The president hasn’t changed his position,” Sanders said.

In the meantime, the president is determined not to alienate his core supporters — many of whom continue to defend Moore — at a time when his presidential popularity is lagging and his agenda faces headwinds in Congress. The outcome in Alabama could be crucial in the ongoing GOP fight for a tax overhaul, since a victory by Democrat Jones would narrow the Republicans’ Senate majority to a mere two seats.