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The GOP isn’t calling for Roy Moore to step aside — not really

"I believe the women," who accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Nov. 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senate Republicans' response to the allegation that Roy Moore initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 have been strikingly similar: If it's true, he must step aside as the Republican nominee in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat. Among those saying that are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Republicans' campaign chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and David Perdue (R-Ga.).

“If these allegations are true, he must step aside,” McConnell said. Murkowski added: “I’m horrified, and if it’s true he should step down immediately.”

It sounds tough, but it means far less — practically speaking — than it seems.

The allegations against Moore, after all, involve things that allegedly happened 35 to 40 years ago when he was in his early 30s. They also involve, in one case, alleged unwanted sexual touching. In three other cases, women who were between 16 and 18 at the time allege that Moore pursued them but didn't initiate sexual contact beyond kissing. In other words, as with other cases of alleged sexual harassment or assault that are disclosed by the victims decades later, it's basically impossible that there will be physical evidence that will prove Moore did anything.

And even if more accusers were to come forward, it would likely remain Moore's word against theirs. About the most we could expect is some kind of documentation — a letter, etc. — that establishes some kind of a relationship between Moore and one of the then-teenagers. But even that wouldn't likely be proof of wrongdoing.

And it doesn't seem that Moore is about to confess to anything. His campaign issued a defiant statement Thursday suggesting that this was a witch hunt conducted by Democrats and the liberal media, and he denied all of the allegations.

“Judge Roy Moore has endured the most outlandish attacks on any candidate in the modern political arena, but this story in today's Washington Post alleging sexual impropriety takes the cake,” the statement says. “National liberal organizations know their chosen candidate Doug Jones is in a death spiral, and this is their last-ditch Hail Mary.”

The statements from Senate Republicans, then, have the effect of looking tough but also not fully denouncing Moore in case he is their only hope of holding a Senate seat. (These senators would surely argue they are being cautious because these are unproven allegations, of course.)

That said, some are not abiding by the talking point. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for instance, did not include the “if true” caveat in calling for Moore to drop out.

“The allegations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” McCain said. “He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.”

But this is the exception that proves the rule. And Republicans' careful wording here should be noted.