Joe Biden, the former US vice-president who is considering a 2020 run against Donald Trump, denied on Sunday that he had made inappropriate sexual advances to a female state lawmaker at a 2014 political campaign stop in Nevada.
Lucy Flores, who was 35 years old at the time and running for lieutenant-governor, wrote that Mr Biden planted a “big slow kiss” on the back of her head after putting his hands on her shoulders, leaning in and smelling her hair. “I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused,” Ms Flores wrote in a lengthy article published in The Cut. “I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me,” she wrote about the episode five years ago.
Mr Biden, who is 76 and considered to be a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he did not remember acting improperly.
“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,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Sunday. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention,” he added.
According to a Quinnipiac University Poll, Mr Biden is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Mr Trump’s control of the White House next year, with 29 per cent of Democratic voters favouring the former vice-president. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, was in second place, with 19 per cent, while Beto O’ Rourke, the Texas congressman, was in third place with 12 per cent.
Mr Biden has not yet formally thrown his hat in the ring. Supporters say his experience, moderate views and ability to appeal to white working class voters in pivotal Midwestern swing states such as Pennsylvania would make him the ideal contender.
However, critics say a Biden candidacy would fail to elicit the enthusiasm that is needed to beat Mr Trump within the Democratic base, which has shifted leftward in recent years and is looking for a fresh face to win the White House.
The allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour risk inflicting damage on Mr Biden’s prospects given increased sensitivity to such accusations among Democrats in the wake of the #metoo movement. “I believe Lucy Flores. And Joe Biden needs to give an answer,” Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who is running for the Democratic nomination, said on Saturday at a press conference.
Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Mr Trump, told Fox News Sunday that Mr Biden “has a big problem here because he calls it affection and handshakes [but] his party calls it completely inappropriate.”
Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democratic senator, was more lenient, saying that the allegations needed to be taken “seriously and with respect” but one accusation was not “disqualifying”.
In his statement, Mr Biden also pledged to be a fierce advocate for women’s rights if he were to be elected, in contrast to Mr Trump and his administration.
“I will fight to build on the work I’ve done in my career to end violence against women and ensure women are treated with the equality they deserve. I will continue to surround myself with trusted women advisers who challenge me to see different perspectives than my own,” he said.