The reactions to the allegation that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney have highlighted deep divisions within the Republican Party and underscored the growing tribalism that has infected the nation's politics.

-- At the Capitol, establishment Republicans expressed alarm. "If these allegations are true, he must step aside," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a formal statement on behalf of all Republican senators. A host of his members made similar comments, including Jeff Flake, David Perdue, John Thune, Cory Gardner and Pat Toomey. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was unequivocal:

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

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, lost a Republican primary in 2010 but stayed in the Senate by waging a write-in campaign against the GOP nominee. She publicly urged appointed Sen. Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the September primary, to try repeating that feat.

-- Meanwhile, down in Montgomery, Republican leaders mostly circled the wagons behind Moore. The deadline has passed to take his name off the ballot. The Alabama state party could disqualify him from the election, but there was relatively little appetite locally to do so.

Samuel H. Givhan, the senior vice chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, was dismissive when asked about McConnell's statement. "I'm not sure Sen. McConnell has any say so in this," he told our Michael Scherer.

Jonathan P. Gray, a Republican consultant in Alabama who is not working with any of the Senate candidates this year, was even more pointed when Scherer reached out: "I think it was already perfectly well stated that no one in Alabama gives a (expletive) what Mitch McConnell or John McCain thinks we should do."

The most remarkable pushback came from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who dismissed the allegations by saying that there was also an age gap between the biblical Joseph and Mary. "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus," he told The Washington Examiner. "There's just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual."

Zeigler said the allegations, even if true, are "much ado about nothing." As part of his defense, he argued that Moore "fell in love with one of the younger women" and noted that the woman he wound up marrying later on is 14 years younger than him. "There is nothing to see here," Zeigler said, predicting that voters would be angrier at The Washington Post for writing the story than at Moore for his behavior. He made another biblical reference: "Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist," he said.

The Republican National Committeeman from Alabama, Paul Reynolds, said that he trusts Vladimir Putin more than Moore's accusers. "My gosh, it's The Washington Post. If I've got a choice of putting my welfare into the hands of Putin or The Washington Post, Putin wins every time," he told The Hill. "This is going to make Roy Moore supporters step up to the plate and give more, work more and pray more."

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, who got the job this year when Republican Robert Bentley resigned in disgrace to avoid jail time, called the allegations "deeply disturbing," but then she stressed that she will withhold judgment until "we know the facts."

The chairman of the Bibb County Republican Party, Jerry Pow, said that he'd vote for Moore even if it was proven he committed a sex crime against an underage girl. "I would vote for Judge Moore because I wouldn't want to vote for Doug," he told the Toronto Star, referring to Democratic candidate Doug Jones. "I'm not saying I support what he did."

The same reporter heard similar things from other local party leaders he called:

Daniel Dale tweeted: "'Yeah!' Covington County GOP Chairman William Blocker tells me he'd consider voting Moore even if hard proof of sexual abuse emerged.

"'There is NO option to support to support Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee. When you do that, you are supporting the entire Democrat party.'"

-- For its part, the White House is trying to thread the needle: "Like most Americans, the president does not believe we can allow a mere allegation, in this case one from many years ago, to destroy a person's life," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters accompanying President Donald Trump as he flew from China to Vietnam overnight. "However, the president also believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside." Vice President Mike Pence also "found the allegations in the story disturbing and believes, if true, this would disqualify anyone from serving in office," added Alyssa Farah, his spokeswoman.

-- Moore vehemently denies any wrongdoing. He defiantly pledged in a series of tweets Thursday that he will not step aside, referring to his opponents and the mainstream media as "evil":

Moore tweeted: "The Obama-Clinton Machine's liberal media lapdogs just launched the most vicious and nasty round of attacks against me I've EVER faced!

"We are are in the midst of a spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message."

"The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal -- even inflict physical harm -- if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me. (2/4) #ALSen "

"I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values!

"Our nation is at a crossroads right now - both spiritually and politically. (3/4) #ALSen"

"Our children and grandchildren's futures are on the line.

So rest assured - I will NEVER GIVE UP the fight! (4/4) #ALSen"


-- This is just the latest in a string of character tests that Republicans have faced in the past few years. Many, but not all, have related to Trump. Scores of GOP leaders who bristled after the "Access Hollywood" tape emerged in October 2016 chose just days later to rally behind Trump anyway.

Republicans came to Greg Gianforte's defense after he admitted physically assaulting a reporter this June, and he won a special election to keep Montana's sole House seat in GOP hands. In 2012, the National Republican Senatorial Committee publicly announced that it was abandoning GOP nominee Todd Akin in the Missouri Senate race after he declared that "legitimate rape" does not lead to unwanted pregnancies (because, he said, the female body has ways of shutting them down). But when polls showed that Akin was within striking distance of beating Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Senate Republican leaders quietly reversed themselves and funneled nearly $1 million to fund a last-minute TV ad blitz on his behalf.

In those three cases, Republican leaders in Washington stomached their initial concerns and chose to prioritize politics above principles. With Moore making clear that he will not step aside, now they face another legacy-defining test: Will they follow their moral compasses or their political ones?

-- If not here, where will they draw the line?

-- To be sure, the stakes are very high in the Dec. 12 special election to replace Jeff Sessions, who resigned to become attorney general. Republicans only have a two-seat majority in the Senate, and they've struggled to get 50 votes for priorities like repealing Obamacare. If Democratic candidate Doug Jones wins, he will hold the seat through at least 2020 and his party will have a clearer path to retaking the majority next year.

-- But the underlying allegations are also very serious. The Post's Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites detail on-the-record allegations against Moore by a then-14-year-old and three other girls between the ages of 16 and 18 when they said the incidents occurred.

This is the lead anecdote: "Leigh Corfman says she was 14 years old when an older man approached her outside a courtroom in Etowah County, Ala. She was sitting on a wooden bench with her mother, they both recall, when the man introduced himself as Roy Moore. It was early 1979 and Moore . . . was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. He struck up a conversation, Corfman and her mother say, and offered to watch the girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing. 'He said, 'Oh, you don't want her to go in there and hear all that. I'll stay out here with her,'' says Corfman's mother, Nancy Wells, 71. 'I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl.'

"Alone with Corfman, Moore chatted with her and asked for her phone number, she says. Days later, she says, he picked her up around the corner from her house in Gadsden, drove her about 30 minutes to his home in the woods, told her how pretty she was and kissed her. On a second visit, she says, he took off her shirt and pants and removed his clothes. He touched her over her bra and underpants, she says, and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear. 'I wanted it over with - I wanted out,' she remembers thinking. 'Please just get this over with. Whatever this is, just get it over.' Corfman says she asked Moore to take her home, and he did. . .

"Aside from Corfman, three other women interviewed by The Washington Post in recent weeks say Moore pursued them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s, episodes they say they found flattering at the time, but troubling as they got older. . .

"Wendy Miller says she was 14 and working as a Santa's helper at the Gadsden Mall when Moore first approached her, and 16 when he asked her on dates, which her mother forbade.

"Debbie Wesson Gibson says she was 17 when Moore spoke to her high school civics class and asked her out on the first of several dates that did not progress beyond kissing.

"Gloria Thacker Deason says she was an 18-year-old cheerleader when Moore began taking her on dates that included bottles of Mateus Rosé wine. The legal drinking age in Alabama was 19."

-- The stories are not the product of opposition research:

"Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore's Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don't know one another. . .

"According to campaign reports, none of the women has donated to or worked for Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, or his rivals in the Republican primary, including Sen. Luther Strange, whom he defeated this fall in a runoff election. . . . Corfman, 53, who works as a customer service representative at a payday loan business, says she has voted for Republicans in the past three presidential elections, including for Donald Trump in 2016.

"This account is based on interviews with more than 30 people who said they knew Moore between 1977 and 1982. . . Two of Corfman's childhood friends say she told them at the time that she was seeing an older man, and one says Corfman identified the man as Moore. Wells says her daughter told her about the encounter more than a decade later, as Moore was becoming more prominent as a local judge."

-- Hypocrisy alert: Moore says he's the candidate of traditional values, but historically the behavior that he's accused of would not be tolerated by voters - especially evangelicals. Think about how some of these same people in Alabama might respond if a Democratic Senate candidate was accused of the same stuff. Recall the reaction to Bill Clinton in the 1990s and, more recently, liberal donor Harvey Weinstein.

The Post's Amber Phillips made a list of 13 self-righteous things that Moore has said about sex and morality. Remember, Moore has been removed twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow federal court orders related to the separation of church and state. He argues unabashedly that his personal interpretation of the Bible trumps the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution. In 2003, he disregarded a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. In 2016, he was suspended after trying to block the implementation of the SCOTUS ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.


-- Outsider Republicans around the country rose to Moore's defense:

Fox News host Sean Hannity described Moore's actions as "beyond reprehensible," if they are true, but then he stressed to his viewers that they should not rush to judgment: "This should transcend politics. However, everyone also has the right to defend their name. . . . How do we ascertain what happened 38 years ago? . . . If, in this case, let's say, the allegations turned out to be not true, where would Judge Moore go to get his good name back before an election?"

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who now runs Breitbart and went all-in to help Moore win the GOP primary, dismissed the story as nothing more than a smear campaign. Speaking in New Hampshire Thursday night, he noted that The Post broke both the story about Moore and revealed the "Access Hollywood" tape: "Now is that a coincidence?"

Breitbart editor Joel Pollak argued that only one of the relationships documented in The Post's investigation was "problematic." "The 16-year-old and the 18-year-old have no business in that story because those are women of legal age of consent," he said on MSNBC.

-- Meanwhile, the conservative elites who have traditionally dominated the party but find themselves on the outs in the Trump era distanced themselves:

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg argues on National Review that "Saving Roy Moore Isn't Worth It": "The Post has offered an enormous amount of evidence. . . . I am one of those naïve fools who actually believed that the conservatives who often talked the loudest about the supreme importance of character were sincere. The last two years disabused me of that. But just as a matter of cold realpolitik, I cannot grasp why so many people think it's a good idea to stand by a man who, if elected, will serve as a negative campaign ad made flesh. . . . In the long run, a Senator Moore would cost Republicans more seats than the one he might give them. He'd be an albatross for every elected Republican, including President Trump, who will be asked to take a side on every scene in the clown show Moore would bring to Washington."

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol tweeted: "The terrible truth: In Trump's Republican Party, Roy Moore - politically demagogic and morally bankrupt - seems to be not a bug but a feature."

John Weaver, a campaign strategist to McCain and John Kasich, encouraged Republicans to vote for Moore's opponent. "Roy Moore, unfit before today, should withdraw or be defeated by [Doug Jones], a good man & tough prosecutor," he wrote on Twitter.

From a former George W. Bush speechwriter:

David Frum tweeted: "These are the same things Republicans said after the Access Hollywood audio emerged. Then they changed their minds."

From the longtime conservative radio host in Wisconsin:

Charlie Sykes tweeted: "Will the party that accepted the Access Hollywood president draw the line at Roy Moore and a 14-year-old girl?"

-- A biblical reality check: Several prominent theologians outside of Alabama pushed back hard on the state auditor's dubious invocation of scripture to defend Moore.

"Bringing Joseph and Mary into a modern-day molestation accusation, where a 32-year-old prosecutor is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl, is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous," said Ed Stetzer, a pastor and church consultant at Wheaton College, told our Michelle Boorstein. "Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage."

"Women were chattel back then, they were traded - of course they married men who were much older and had multiple wives," added the Rev. Amy Butler, senior minister of the Riverside Church, a historical and prominent interdenominational church in New York City. "It's completely ludicrous to equate the sex assault of a minor with an ancient culture. It's ludicrous. . . . It makes me want to rip the church back from these people."