Roy Moore courtesy NBC

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump kept uncharacteristically silent and out of the fight Wednesday as national Republicans called ever more insistently for Roy Moore to abandon his Alabama campaign for the U.S. Senate and party officials sourly debated options that none of them liked. Far from surrendering, Moore’s camp fought back against allegations of sexual impropriety with teenage girls years ago when he was in his 30s.

Trump, who withstood allegations of sexual assault weeks before his own election, ducked questions about the Alabama race and whether he would join GOP congressional leaders in urging Moore to step aside. With Moore’s would-be colleagues threatening to expel him should he win and the Republican National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee pulling their support, Trump was seen as the best hope for pushing a fellow political rebel from the race.

Instead, Moore, twice removed from his post as state Supreme Court chief justice, confronted his party with two damaging potential election outcomes. His victory would saddle GOP senators with a colleague accused of abusing and harassing teenagers, a troubling liability heading into next year’s congressional elections, while a loss to Democrat Doug Jones would slice the already narrow GOP Senate majority to an unwieldy 51-49.

Behind the scenes, aides described Trump as vexed by the Moore issue. At any rate, he might make an uncomfortable critic: The allegations against the bombastic former judge echo Trump’s own political problems when he was accused weeks before the 2016 election of more than a dozen instances of sexual harassment. National Republicans, including many of the same now abandoning Moore, withdrew their endorsements or halted their efforts on Trump’s behalf at the time.

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Republican allies of the administration expressed concern about Trump’s silence, warning that Moore will be in the news for weeks, as will the president’s refusal to weigh in.

Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity joined the GOP critics during his show Tuesday evening, saying he was giving Moore 24 hours to explain “inconsistencies” in his response to allegations of child molestation or else exit the Alabama race.

Showing no signs of surrender, Moore’s campaign chairman and personal attorney addressed the media in Alabama, trying to undercut the story of the latest woman to accuse Moore of sexually accosting her when she was in high school.

The attorney, Phillip Jauregui, demanded that Beverly Young Nelson “release the yearbook” she contends Moore signed. He questioned that the signature was Moore’s and said it should be submitted for handwriting analysis. Neither the attorney nor the campaign manager addressed the original allegations from Leigh Corfman concerning sexual contact she said Moore initiated when she was 14, or the other allegations of impropriety with teenagers.

It’s too late to remove Moore’s name from the ballot, so fielding a Republican write-in candidate at this point would almost certainly hand the election to the Democrats unless he should withdraw and persuaded his supporters to vote for that substitute.

To a great extent, the anti-establishment forces that propelled Trump to the White House are now strongly behind Moore, and Alabama Republican leaders are reluctant to block him and enrage his loyal conservative supporters. State GOP leaders are highlighting party rules that could allow them to crack down on Alabama officials who support anyone else.

Trump backed Moore’s unsuccessful rival, Sen. Luther Strange, in the Republican primary. Moore has the backing of Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. And Bannon’s conservative news site, Breitbart, has led the charge in trying to discredit the allegations against the candidate.

GOP officials cautioned that the actions of Washington Republicans, including the president, were unlikely to affect Moore’s decision-making — and that any moves against him could backfire. For example, calling for Moore to exit the race could risk embarrassment if, as expected, Moore defied the request. Officials said the White House did sign off on the RNC’s decision to cut ties with Moore.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump had been involved in dealing with the Moore situation “in great detail” during his Asia trip. McConnell said he had spoken about Moore to the president, Vice President Mike Pence and White House chief of staff John Kelly, with more conversations planned.

“He’s obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate, and we’ve looked at all the options to try to prevent that from happening,” said McConnell, who has encouraged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to mount a write-in campaign. “This close to election, it’s a complicated matter.”

Sessions, whose former Senate seat is at stake, is said to have told friends he has no interest in that.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said in Washington that he’ll write in another name on Election Day and Sessions would be an “ideal candidate.” But he also said “I don’t see any movement” toward an effective effort with the election less than a month away.

Corfman and Nelson have said Moore molested them in the 1970s when one was 14, the other 16 and he was a local deputy district attorney in Gadsden in his 30s. Three other women have said he pursued romantic relationships with them around the same time.

Alabama Republican Party officials convened by phone late Wednesday to discuss the situation. The 21-member party steering committee could vote to revoke Moore’s GOP nomination and ask election officials to ignore ballots cast for him Election Day, but that would risk a lawsuit and backlash from Moore supporters. The party has little interest in alienating Moore’s followers a year before elections in which the governor’s office and entire state Legislature will be in play.

A regional GOP committee representing the state’s 5th congressional district approved a new resolution of support for Moore and asked the state GOP to do the same.

According to internal polling conducted by the Senate GOP campaign arm and reviewed by The Associated Press, Moore trails Democrat Jones by 12 points — 39 percent to 51 percent — in the survey conducted on Sunday and Monday. Moore led by 9 points the week before in the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s internal numbers.

AP writers: Zeke Miller and Steve Peoples

Peoples reported from Birmingham, Alabama. AP reporters Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor and Matthew Daly in Washington, Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, and Kimberly Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama contributed to this report.

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