WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions voiced no skepticism Tuesday of accounts by women accusing Roy Moore of groping or pursuing romantic relationships with them when they were teens, and hinted the Justice Department might look into allegations against the besieged Republican Alabama Senate candidate.
"I have no reason to doubt these young women," Sessions told a House committee. His words seemed certain to carry heft in Alabama, where he was a long-time GOP senator until becoming President Donald Trump's attorney general this year and remains one of that state's most influential Republican voices.
Answering questions before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions didn't rule out a federal probe into the charges.
"We will evaluate every case as to whether or not it should be investigated," Sessions said.
His remarks came as House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the growing chorus of Washington Republicans calling on Moore to drop out of the race. Republicans fear damage from two potential outcomes should he remain a candidate: Moore wins and GOP senators are tainted by association with a colleague accused of molesting teenagers, or he loses the Dec. 12 election to a Democrat.
"These allegations are credible," Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters on Tuesday. "If he cares about the values and people he claims to care about then he should step aside."
Senate Republicans face limited options in trying to force out the former state Supreme Court judge and outspoken Christian conservative, whose name remains on the ballot for the special election against Democrat Doug Jones.
One option they've considered is backing a write-in campaign with another Republican, perhaps Sessions or Sen. Luther Strange, who Moore defeated in a GOP primary in September. Strange told reporters Monday that a write-in candidacy "is highly unlikely."
Moore is showing no sign of quitting, denying allegations by two women that he molested them and sending out fundraising emails emphasizing his stance as a maverick battling establishment politicians.
In one sent Tuesday, he referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as "the forces of evil who are attempting to rip and tear apart me and my campaign with their filthy lies and disgusting attacks."
At an abruptly called news conference Monday in Gallant, Alabama, after a woman surfaced with new allegations, Moore said, "I can tell you without hesitation this is absolutely false. I never did what she said I did. I don't even know the woman."
Moore spoke after a tearful Beverly Young Nelson, now 56, detailed new allegations to reporters in an emotional appearance in New York.
One night when she was 16, Moore offered to drive her home from her after-school job at a restaurant in Gadsden, Alabama, she said. Moore, a regular customer, instead parked behind the restaurant and locked the door to keep her inside, squeezing her neck while trying to push her head toward his crotch and trying to pull her shirt off, Nelson said.
"I thought that he was going to rape me," she said.
Moore stopped and as she left the car he warned no one would believe her because he was a county prosecutor, Nelson said. She said her neck was "black and blue and purple" the next morning.
In Alabama, Jones unveiled a new campaign ad in which state voters, including Republicans, say they can't vote for Moore.
Even before Nelson's news conference, McConnell took a remarkably personal swipe at Moore, based on last week's Washington Post reports of other incidents involving Moore and teen-age girls decades ago.
"I believe the women," said McConnell, marking an intensified effort by leaders to ditch Moore.
Moore fired back at McConnell on Twitter.
"The person who should step aside is @SenateMajLdr Mitch McConnell. He has failed conservatives and must be replaced. #DrainTheSwamp," Moore wrote.
Cory Gardner of Colorado, who heads the Senate GOP's campaign organization, said if Moore is elected, senators should expel him "because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements" of the Senate.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Moore "should not be a United States senator, no matter what it takes." Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who's not seeking re-election after criticizing Trump, said he'd "vote for the Democrat" if he had to choose between Moore and Democrat Jones.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that in 1979 when he was 32, Moore had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl and pursued romantic relationships with three other teenage girls around the same period. The women made their allegations on the record and the Post cited two dozen other sources.
Moore denied last week molesting the 14-year-old but didn't flatly deny he'd dated teenagers, saying in an interview with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, "It would have been out of my customary behavior."
Nelson said that before the alleged incident that Moore signed her yearbook. A copy of her statement at the news conference included a picture of what she said was his signature and a message saying, "To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say, 'Merry Christmas.'"
The tumult comes with Republicans holding a scant 52-48 Senate majority as the GOP rushes to push a massive tax cut through Congress by Christmas.
Chandler reported from Montgomery, Alabama. Reporters Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, Colleen Long in New York and Rhonda Shafner at the AP News Research Center contributed.