Joe Biden issued a response to an incident in which a former Nevada lawmaker said the then-vice president acted inappropriately toward her, even as a public opinion poll showed the 76-year-old is the most palatable candidate for Democratic voters in 2020.
Lucy Flores, a former assemblywoman who was Nevada's 2014 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said Friday in an essay published by the Cut that Biden touched and kissed her without her consent before a rally to support her campaign. She said the experience mortified, embarrassed and confused her.
"I can't imagine that there was never a situation where someone said to him you should probably stop doing that, stop touching women in that way," Flores said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
Biden is expected to announce soon whether he will pursue a 2020 presidential bid.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday showed Biden, who's yet to formally announce a presidential bid, is the most palatable among well-known Democratic candidates at the moment.
A combined 73 percent of Democrats say they're either enthusiastic or comfortable with Biden as a candidate, while just 25 percent either have reservations or are uncomfortable. That put Biden ahead of candidates with more progressive policy proposals, including Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
The survey was conducted March 23-27, before Flores' comments came to light on Friday in an article for "The Cut." The margin of error for 1,000 adults surveyed was plus or minus 3.1 percent.
On Sunday, he said he had offered "countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort" during his years in public life, "and not once - never - did I believe I acted inappropriately."
"If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention," Biden said in a statement. "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."
He pointed to his history of hiring "trusted women advisers who challenge me to see different perspectives than my own." And he touted his record of work on behalf of women's rights, pledging to "continue to speak out on these vitally-important issues where there is much more progress to be made and crucial fights that must be waged and won."
In an initial statement Friday night, a Biden spokesman said that neither the former vice president nor his staff had "an inkling that Ms. Flores had been at any time uncomfortable, nor do they recall what she describes."
Flores said Sunday that Biden's new statement was an improvement and that she is glad he is "willing to listen." But she added that it was concerning that he does not think he has ever acted inappropriately.
"Frankly, I think that's a little bit of a disconnect. ... Of course, I want him to change his behavior, and I want him to acknowledge that it was wrong," Flores said in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union."
Asked whether Biden's behavior should disqualify him from the presidential race, Flores replied, "For me, it's disqualifying. I think it's up to everybody else to make that decision."
In her piece in the Cut, Flores said Biden approached her from behind during the 2014 incident, placed his hands on her shoulders, moved closer to her and planted a "big slow kiss" on the back of her head. She said Sunday that his behavior had made her feel "powerless" and "like I couldn't move."
"To have the vice president of the United States do that to me, so unexpectedly, and kind of out of nowhere, it was shocking," she said on CNN. "You don't expect that kind of intimate behavior, that kind of intimacy, from someone so powerful. ... So I, frankly, I didn't even know how to react."
Over the years, Biden has been captured in numerous images and videos embracing, kissing and standing close to women. Biden himself made note of his behavior during a March 16 speech in Dover, Delaware, in which he referred to himself as a "tactile politician."
"I always have been, and that gets me in trouble as well, because I think I can feel and taste what is going on," he told the crowd.
The renewed focus on Biden's behavior comes as the former vice president is under increasing pressure from women's rights groups, prominent African American leaders and other supporters of Anita Hill to acknowledge his personal responsibility for his handling of the 1991 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Some have criticized Biden's remarks about Hill at an event in New York last week, at which he said he still regretted that he "couldn't come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved."
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden refused to allow testimony from sexual harassment experts and additional witnesses who could have supported Hill's account. Critics also argue that he could have done more to rebuke senators who questioned Hill inappropriately during the hearing.
Henry Munoz, a former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee who organized the 2014 rally, said in a statement Sunday that Biden and Flores were "both individuals that I love and respect" but added that he did not believe Flores' account.
"At no time were these two leaders alone together, and I, and the organization I co-founded and those in attendance, do not believe that circumstances support allegations that such an event took place," Munoz said.
But Flores did not state that she and Biden were alone when the alleged incident took place. In her piece in The Cut and in Sunday's CNN interview, she said others were present at the time.
"Eva Longoria was there," Flores said on CNN. "We were all lined up next to the stage. Eva was in front of me. Joe Biden was behind me."
Several Democrats said Sunday that they believed Flores's account but stopped short of calling on Biden to stay out of the White House race.
"Certainly one allegation is not disqualifying, but it should be taken seriously," Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said on NBC News' "Meet the Press."
Durbin told host Chuck Todd that "all of us should take such allegations seriously and with respect. I took Joe Biden's statement to say just that exactly."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who are pursuing 2020 White House bids, said they he had "no reason not to believe" Flores.
Asked on CBS News' "Face the Nation" whether Flores' account was sufficient to prevent Biden from joining the 2020 race, Sanders said, "That's a decision for the vice president to make. I'm not sure that one incident alone disqualifies anybody."
Klobuchar said on ABC News's "This Week" that Biden will need to address the incident. "I think we know from campaigns and from politics that people raise issues and they have to address them, and that's what he will have to do with the voters if he gets into the race," she said.
Two other 2020 Democratic contenders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former housing and urban development secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, made similar remarks on Saturday.
"I read the op-ed last night. I believe Lucy Flores. And Joe Biden needs to give an answer," Warren told reporters in Iowa. Asked whether Biden should pass on running in 2020, she replied, "That's for Joe Biden to decide."
In her essay for The Cut, Flores also related the reaction that she says she received when she told her story to "a male friend who is also a political operative in Biden's orbit." The man, whom she did not name, "did what no one else had and made me question myself and wonder if I was doing the right thing," she wrote.
"He reminded me that Biden has significant resources and argued points that made me question my memory, even though I've replayed that scene in my mind a thousand times. He reminded me that my credibility would be attacked and that I should be prepared for the type of 'back and forth' that could occur," Flores wrote.
Later Friday, Cristobal Alex, who recently stepped down as head of the Latino Victory Fund and is reportedly signing up with Biden's campaign team, said in a statement that he was the person in question. He said he had told Flores "that once (her story) became public, she could expect questions, and that what she remembered did not match my recollection or what was in the photos." Nonetheless, he said Flores was misrepresenting their conversation.
"The insinuation that I would try and gaslight a friend, much less anyone, is completely wrong," Alex said.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, argued that Biden "has a big problem here."
"He calls it affection and handshakes. His party calls it completely inappropriate," Conway said on "Fox News Sunday."
Asked about the allegations of sexual misconduct facing President Trump, Conway demurred. "We've certainly covered that during the campaign ad infinitum. ... Now (those accusers) have to really grapple with what's going on in their own party," she said.
This article was written by Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post. Michael Brice-Saddler, Ros Krasny and Laura Davison contributed to this report.