HENNIKER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte was forced to defend her support for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump during her debate Monday night with challenger Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, at one point saying she would tell a child to aspire to be like the New York real estate mogul.
In one of the closest Senate races in the country, Hassan has worked to tie Ayotte to Trump, who is trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state. Ayotte, who has tried to distance herself from Trump by playing up her moderate positions, has said she wouldn’t endorse him but would vote for him.
She reaffirmed that position Monday night.
But Ayotte seemed to be caught off guard when asked by one of the moderators whether she saw Trump as a role model whom she would tell a child to aspire to. At first, she sidestepped the question by saying she would tell a child to aspire to be the best person they can be and seek to run for the presidency. When she was asked again, she said she believed Trump “can serve for president” and “so absolutely I would do that.”
Another moderator then pressed Ayotte to explain why she wouldn’t endorse Trump if she felt that way.
“I’ve had some disagreements with him. I’ve been quite clear about those disagreements,” she said without providing specifics.
Hassan pounced on Ayotte’s answer, saying this was just another example of the senator “trying to distance herself from Donald Trump.”
“At the end of the day, she is still saying she is going to vote to put Donald trump in the situation room with access to the nuclear code,” Hassan said. “She is going to vote to make him the leader of our country and someone who our children will be exposed as the president of the United States.”
Trump loomed large in Monday night’s debate following revelations over the weekend reported by The New York Times that he may not have paid income taxes after a more than $900 million loss in 1995. Trump has refused to release his tax returns.
But Hassan also came under fire for her half-hearted defense of Clinton earlier this year when she wasn’t able to say whether she found the Democratic nominee trustworthy. This time, Hassan said Clinton was trustworthy and someone who had the support of both Democrats and Republicans.
“What I find very concerning is that at a time when our country faces so many evolving national security threats, that my opponent is supporting Donald Trump, who members of her own party say poses an absolute danger to the country’s vital interest.”
Ayotte tried to turn that around by saying she was willing to stand up to Trump, while Hassan has blindly supported Clinton.
“That is not right for New Hampshire. We need someone who is going to stand up no matter who is in that Oval Office,” she said. “Look at what Secretary Clinton did with her emails. We haven’t heard Gov. Hassan call her out at all on those issues, which are deeply troubling to the American people.”
Hassan said she has spoken out against what she conceded was a mistake on the part of Clinton for using a private email server while leading the State Department.
“I have never failed to stand up to my party when I disagreed with my party,” Hassan said. “I have acknowledged and criticized Secretary Clinton for the mistakes she made with her email. She said she shouldn’t have done it and it was a mistake and she wouldn’t do it again. I agree with her.”