Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Biden Courage Awards Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in New York. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Former Vice-President Joe Biden scrambled on Sunday to contain a quickly growing crisis for his likely presidential bid, putting forward several former female aides and allies to praise his treatment of women after Lucy Flores, a former Nevada legislator, accused Biden of kissing and touching her.

Biden also issued a sweeping statement acknowledging that he had shown “expressions of affection” to people during his years on the campaign trail, but said, “not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately.”

It was the second damage-control statement to come from his team since Flores made her allegation on Friday, and it was released minutes before she appeared on CNN and argued that Biden’s behaviour with her at a 2014 campaign event was “disqualifying” for a presidential candidate.

Yet even as Biden defended himself, and his former staff members praised his conduct as a boss, some of the former vice-president’s would-be rivals in the 2020 Democratic field and some allies said that Flores’ claim should be taken seriously.

“I have no reason not to believe Lucy,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday. Asked if the allegation should disqualify Biden from running for president, Sanders said: “I think that’s a decision for the vice-president to make. I’m not sure that one incident alone disqualifies anybody.”

Biden’s advisers indicated on Sunday that the accusation would not dissuade him from entering the 2020 campaign, which they suggest he still intends to do at the end of April or just after. But Flores’ claim, and Biden’s attempt to rebut her story without dismissing it — or her — offered a vivid illustration of the #MeToo-era challenges that await a 76-year-old political veteran known for his close physical contact with women, including hugging, kissing and touching them.

The allegation came shortly after Biden faced criticism for saying he wished he “could have done something” when Anita Hill accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment — even though he led the Senate committee that questioned her — leading some in his party to brace for an extended reckoning about Biden and gender if he enters the race.

“Maybe Biden and other male politicians should observe their female counterparts,” Gloria Steinem, the feminist advocate, said in an email Sunday, noting that since “women candidates are unlikely to hug and kiss men they don’t know, male politicians could refrain from hugging and kissing women they don’t know.”

The often garrulous Biden, treading gingerly at a moment when women around the world are coming forward to share details about mistreatment by men, only issued a statement through his aides rather than grant interviews.

“We have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention,” Biden said.

And, he vowed, “I will.”

In her CNN interview Sunday, Flores, 39, said she was glad the former vice-president was willing to listen and clarify his intentions. But she said she found it hard to believe that Biden could not have been aware of how he made her and other women feel, saying there was “a little bit of a disconnect.”

“It’s completely inappropriate,” Flores said of Biden’s behaviour with women. “And that is something that we should consider when we’re talking about the background of a person who is considering running for president.”

She first levelled her charges in an essay published on Friday in New York magazine’s The Cut. Flores, a candidate for lieutenant-governor of Nevada in 2014, said that when Biden visited that year to campaign for her and other Democrats, he came up behind her before the rally, put his hands on her shoulders and planted “a big slow kiss” on the back of her head.

Flores said she felt compelled to come forward now because she believed Biden’s behaviour with women was being left out of political conversations as he prepares for a possible presidential run.

Biden has drawn attention in the past for his intimate touching of political allies, their family members and even supporters he has just met — gestures that are seen as excessive to the point of creepy by some but viewed as harmless by his defenders.

Biden’s allies said he often drew close to people he sensed were nervous before they went on stage in an effort to relax them, suggesting that is what he was doing with Flores. On Saturday night, Henry R. Munoz III, the organiser of the 2014 rally and a co-founder of the Latino Victory Project, issued a statement asserting that there was no evidence that Flores and Biden were ever alone together at the event. (Flores said the incident happened just offstage at the event and that there were not many people nearby at that moment.)

And, in recognition of the political peril the former vice-president now finds himself in, Biden’s female aides and supporters rushed to his defence over the weekend, some of them citing anecdotes about when he, for example, offered to get coffee himself when a male colleague asked one of his female aides to do it.

“I have often been asked what it was like to work in the US Senate (a famously all-male environment) in the early- to mid-1990s,” Cynthia Hogan, who worked for Biden as a congressional aide and was his counsel when he was vice-president, said in an email Sunday.

“I can happily answer that my experience was wonderful BECAUSE I was lucky enough to work for Joe Biden, who had promoted several women, including me, to leadership roles on the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and who treated us with respect and insisted that others do the same.”

Amanda Loveday, a longtime Biden supporter in South Carolina, said, “We all express emotion in our own ways, and Joe Biden’s has always been with gratitude and respect.”