Georgia Republican leaders slam, but stand by Trump

February 21, 2016 Atlanta - Republican frontrunner Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at Georgia World Congress Center on Sunday, February 21, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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February 21, 2016 Atlanta - Republican frontrunner Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at Georgia World Congress Center on Sunday, February 21, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Top Georgia Republicans criticized Donald Trump’s lewd comments bragging about sexually harassing women, but none withdrew their support of the party’s nominee.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, facing re-election in November, said he was “disgusted” with Trump’s comments. Sen. David Perdue, Trump’s highest-profile supporter in Georgia, called the comments “disrespectful.” Gov. Nathan Deal’s top aide, Chris Riley, called them “vile.” And House Speaker David Ralston said he won’t bother trying to “defend the indefensible.”

But each also indicated Saturday they would still stand by Trump – or at least that they would not publicly disavow him. And several said they were more focused on Georgia’s recovery from Hurricane Matthew, which forced hundreds of thousands of Georgia residents to evacuate after it battered the Atlantic coast.

In the bombshell 2005 video unearthed Friday by The Washington Post, Trump brags in vulgar terms of trying to have sex with a married woman and of groping women's genitals, saying that "when you're a star, they let you do it." Trump has apologized for his remarks and said there is "zero chance" he will quit the race even as national GOP leaders call for him to step down.

His running mate, Mike Pence, said he was “offended” by Trump’s words and actions in the video, calling them indefensible. But he also suggested he was still standing by the nominee.

"I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them. I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people," Pence said in a statement. "We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night."

In Georgia, many politicians who were long torn by Trump’s rise to the top of the GOP ticket struggled with the fallout of the latest embarrassment.

Ralston said through a spokesman that he was “sickened and disgusted by these reprehensible comments.”

“Demeaning and degrading behavior toward women does not reflect the values of the Republican Party to which the Speaker has given a lifetime of service,” said Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen. “This type of conduct can only contribute to the terrible prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Frankly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Georgians have more important things to do today than trying to defend the indefensible.”

Isakson, facing pressure from Democrat Jim Barksdale to disavow Trump, said the comments were "wholly inappropriate and unacceptable."

“As a husband, father of a daughter and grandfather to five granddaughters, I am disgusted by Trump’s comments,” he added.

And Perdue, one of Trump’s top national supporters, said through a spokeswoman: “Obviously these comments were disrespectful, and right now Senator Perdue is focused on making sure Georgians are safe and helping our state recover from this major storm.”

One of the few Georgia Republicans willing to defend Trump’s remark was former Rep. Jack Kingston, an adviser to the nominee and potential candidate for governor in 2018.

“If this conversation had happened yesterday or, you know, a year ago, it would be one thing,” said Kingston on MSNBC. “But 10 years ago, in the context of Hollywood – it doesn’t make it right, not at all – but in the same hand, putting it in context, 10 years ago, in a private conversation. It’s a little different than a public policy statement.”

Many top Georgia GOP elected officials were torn over Trump's rise long before the latest recorded revelation, but none had publicly disavowed him. Republican state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, came closest with a manifesto warning that Trump-ian policies would lead to the extinction of the Republican Party. But even he said then that he would back Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton over concerns about her judiciary appointments.

Some non-elected officials had harsher words. Brennan Mancil, the chairman of the Georgia College Republicans and member of the state party executive committee, said he could not vote for Trump.

“That does not mean I’ve lost faith in our party,” he said, adding that he spent Saturday campaigning for other Republicans on the ballot. “Unless Republican leadership stands up to those who violate every principle of our party, we cannot claim the mantle of conservatism.”

Democratic Party of Georgia executive director Rebecca DeHart seized on the chance to criticize GOP officials for sticking by Trump.

“Where’s the leadership?” she said. “Why haven’t Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue and the rest of their Party condemned their candidate and immediately withdrawn their support?”

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