By John Whitesides
(Reuters) - A sixth woman came forward on Wednesday with allegations of sexual misconduct against embattled Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, accusing him of groping her while she was in his Alabama law office on legal business in 1991, when he was married.
Unlike the earlier cases that involved teenagers, Tina Johnson was an adult when she visited Moore's office with her mother, who had hired Moore in a custody case involving Johnson's 12-year-old son.
Johnson told AL.com, an Alabama news website, that Moore grabbed her buttocks as she left.
"He didn't pinch it, he grabbed it," Johnson, who was 28 at the time, told AL.com. Reuters was unable to independently verify the allegation, and Moore's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Five other women have accused Moore of sexual misconduct or of dating them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers, prompting a wave of demands from national Republican Party leaders that he drop out of the Dec. 12 special Senate election to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was named U.S. attorney general last spring.
Moore, 70, on Wednesday denied the allegations of the first five women to step forward.
"We are in the process of investigating these false allegations to determine their origin and motivation," he said in a statement.
Moore also said he believed a message that one of the accusers, Beverly Young Nelson, said he had written in her high school yearbook had been tampered with. Nelson accused Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was 16 and he was in his 30s.
Nelson displayed the yearbook message at a news conference in New York where she made the allegations on Monday. Moore's campaign on Wednesday demanded that Nelson turn over the yearbook to a neutral custodian so a handwriting expert could examine it.
Republican leaders in Washington have asked Moore to withdraw from the race and said they are exploring write-in options for the election. The Alabama state party's leadership was meeting on Wednesday night to discuss their stance.
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has spoken to President Donald Trump and others about the situation. Trump appeared at the White House on Wednesday but did not make any mention of Moore.
Under state law, Moore cannot be removed from the ballot. If, however, the state party tells election officials that it wants to withdraw its nominee, or if Moore himself decided to do so, election officials would not certify any votes cast for Moore.
Before the allegations surfaced, Moore, a Christian conservative and former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, had been heavily favoured to defeat Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney. But a new poll on Wednesday, released by the Senate Republicans' campaign arm, had Jones surging to a 12-point lead since the allegations surfaced.
A Democratic win in Alabama would be a blow to Trump's agenda and shift the political outlook for next year's congressional elections, giving Democrats a stronger shot at wiping out the Republicans' 52-48 Senate majority.
Moore has suggested that McConnell and other establishment Republicans are working in tandem with news media to discredit him.
The Washington Post had first disclosed allegations by four women about their relationships with Moore when they were teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 18. One of the women said he initiated sexual contact with her when she was 14 and Moore was in his 30s.
(Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech; Editing by Leslie Adler)