Former US vice president Joe Biden insisted Sunday he has never acted inappropriately towards women as a growing row about a kiss on the campaign trail cast a shadow over his expected run for the White House.
The 76-year-old Biden is the clear favourite to win the Democratic nomination to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election even though he has yet to declare his candidacy.
But several of his rivals have now weighed in on the allegations from a former state lawmaker who has recalled being “mortified” when Biden planted a “big, slow kiss” on the back of her head on the sidelines of a rally in Nevada five years ago.
The New York Post on Saturday ran a gallery of photographs of Biden’s “most touchy-feely moments,” embracing and kissing women at public events over the years.
His 39-year-old accuser Lucy Flores said in a new television interview that Biden’s behaviour meant he should not run for president shortly after Biden released a statement trying to quell the storm.
“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately,” Biden said in his statement released by his spokesman on Twitter.
“If it is suggested that I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.
“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”
Flores, who was a state lawmaker at the time, had been running for the post of Nevada lieutenant governor when Biden appeared at a rally to offer support when Barack Obama’s number two.
In response to Biden’s statement, Flores said she was “glad he’s willing to listen” but added that his behaviour should rule him out from seeking the Democratic nomination against a president who has himself faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment.
“For me it’s disqualifying,” she told CNN.
“Yes, of course I want him to change his behaviour. And I want him to acknowledge this was wrong. I want this to be a bigger discussion about how there is no accountability structure within our political space either for instances in which women feel that there was inappropriate behaviour or more serious instances.”
Biden has previously acknowledged that his “tactile” behaviour could land him in trouble, especially in the #MeToo era which has already torpedoed the careers of several US politicians, including the former Democrat senator Al Franken.
Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, who are also running for president, both said Flores’ account should be regarded as credible while another Democratic candidate, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, said it was “very disconcerting.”
Asked if the allegations were disqualifying, Bernie Sanders — who is running second to Biden in the opinion polls among Democrat supporters —said it was a decision only Biden could make.
“I’m not sure that one incident alone disqualifies anybody, but her point is absolutely right. This is an issue not just for Democrats or Republicans, but the entire country has got to take seriously,” he told CBS.
Biden has had a reputation in Washington for awkwardly touching the wives, mothers or daughters of senators during swearing-in ceremonies, and he came under criticism for massaging the shoulders of new defence secretary Ash Carter’s wife in 2015.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed on Fox News that Biden had a “a big problem,” adding that there was multiple footage of him behaving in a “creepy” way.
Trump himself suffered a major embarrassment during the 2016 campaign when an old recording of him bragging about assaulting women was made public although he has since disputed whether it was actually his voice.
© Agence France-Presse