Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais charged Thursday that his Democratic opponent in Tennessee's 4th District race "has resorted to false, personal attacks" as the Jasper, Tenn., physician seeks to counter fallout from a leaked transcript that depicts him pressuring a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion.
In an email sent to supporters, DesJarlais says, "Eric Stewart knows that he cannot attack me on my independent, conservative and pro-life record in Congress, so he has resorted to false, personal attacks straight out of the Lincoln Davis playbook all in an attempt to steal this election away from the real issues: YOUR JOBS, YOUR HOMES and YOUR VALUES."
DesJarlais said on Thursday in an interview with WTN-FM host Ralph Bristol that the woman did not turn out to be pregnant, The Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, Stewart seized on a same-day Huffington Post account of the transcript and accused DesJarlais of "hypocrisy" and violating his marital vows and physician's oath. The unnamed woman had been a patient of DesJarlais.
The congressman is not specifying what part of Stewart's comments or the transcript, which is under seal in DeJarlais' bitter divorce with his then-wife Susan, is false. The divorce was finalized in 2001.
In other developments Thursday in what has become a national story:
• Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign appears to be distancing itself from the 4th Congressional District representative. The campaign on Thursday took down from its web site a news release on DesJarlais' endorsement of Romney issued May 29.
A previously captured image of a computer screen circulating in Tennessee Democratic circles late Thursday afternoon shows the release, in which Romney says, "I'm very proud to have the support of such a principled and independent conservative as Scott DesJarlais" and notes the GOP nominee's campaign had removed it.
Thursday evening, the Huffington Post, a liberal news website, took credit, saying the endorsement had been "live" on the Romney web site but "disappeared" after a reporter made inquires to the Romney campaign.
• The Tennessee Republican Party, meanwhile, is continuing to stand by DesJarlais, who was elected in 2010 when he defeated incumbent Democrat Lincoln Davis.
In a statement sent to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday night, GOP Executive Director Adam Nickas called Stewart's attack a "smear." He told The Associated Press on Thursday he is sticking to that description.
But two of the state's top GOP officeholders, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam, declined to offer support or criticize DesJarlais during a Thursday visit to Chattanooga.
Alexander punted the issue to voters.
"I don't go around telling people what to do about issues like that," Alexander said. "That's between the congressman and the voters of his district. I know the voters of his district very well, and they are fully capable of making their own minds up about this."
Haslam said he didn't know enough to make a judgment.
"I haven't talked with the congressman, so it's probably not appropriate until I know a little more," he told reporters.
Haslam said that "until I have a chance to really understand that situation better, I'm just not going to comment. I want the chance to talk with Scott and to do some other things."
When the Huffington Post story initially appeared and in subsequent inquiries by Tennessee-based news organizations on Wednesday, DesJarlais dismissed the contents of the transcript as "old news" orchestrated by his foes.
DesJarlais' divorce had been hashed out in his 2010 campaign, but the transcript and its depiction of him putting pressure on the unnamed woman to obtain an abortion never did.
The transcript of the recorded conversation, later placed under court seal, quotes the physician telling the woman who had had been his patient that she should have an abortion of the fetus she accused him of fathering.
"You told me you'd have an abortion, and now we're getting too far along without one," DesJarlais is quoted as saying at that point. "If we need to go to Atlanta, or whatever, to get this solved and get it over with so we can get on with our lives, then let's do it."
DesJarlais also appears skeptical as to whether he was actually the father, telling the woman she had been with another man just three days earlier. The physician also presses the woman on another front, asking her "to show me an ultrasound report."
In his email to supporters, which also includes an appeal for contributions, DesJarlais said he had "hoped that this election would be a discussion on issues important to Tennesseans, but instead we are left to fight back against these desperate attempts at character assassination."
Stewart later struck back with his campaign manager, Kevin Teets, saying, "Congressman DesJarlais didn't deny the contents of the horrific transcript, and he's going to have a difficult time finding anyone that doesn't believe it's disgusting and appalling for a licensed medical doctor to sleep with his patient, plead with her to have an abortion, admit to at least four extramarital affairs and then run for Congress as a pro-life and pro-family candidate.
"This is hypocrisy at its best," Teets said.
Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...