Ayotte backtracks from calling Trump role model, as comment spreads across internet like wildfire

  • Senator Kelly Ayotte and Governor Maggie Hassan at the debate at New England College Monday night.

  • Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte walks away from reporters Tuesday Oct. 4, 2016 in Hudson, N.H., after telling them she “misspoke” when she said Donald Trump is a role model for children during a live televised debate the night before. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 10/4/2016 4:16:33 PM

First, Republican Kelly Ayotte said Donald Trump is “absolutely” someone children should look to as a role model. Three hours later, the senator backtracked, saying she misspoke during a televised debate.

But by then, her comments had taken hold, spreading across the internet and capturing national headlines.

Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan was quick to pounce; her campaign put out a web ad contrasting Ayotte’s statement with video clips of Trump’s attacks on women and those with disabilities. Ayotte faced a horde of reporters when she dropped by a McDonald’s on Tuesday for a planned visit with workers.

“I misspoke,” the first-term senator reiterated at the Hudson franchise, where she took customers’ orders at the drive-thru window.

Throughout the competitive U.S. Senate race, Ayotte has tried to distance herself from Trump, avoiding his campaign rallies and saying she supports but does not endorse his candidacy.

Still, Trump continues to be a torturous subject for Ayotte, who at times has struggled to answer whether she backs him, agrees with his policies or, in this case, considers him a role model for children.

The U.S. Senate race is one of the most competitive in the country, and it could tip party control of the chamber. Democrats have tried to tie Ayotte to Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state. Ayotte has largely tried to avoid talk of Trump, making the role model comments her most high-profile slip-up yet.

Recent polls show the Republican senator running ahead of Trump in New Hampshire. Real Clear Politics shows Ayotte with a slight edge over Hassan, while Trump trails Democrat Hillary Clinton by 6 percentage points in the state.

It remains to be seen whether this exchange will damage her popularity.

“She’s between a rock and a hard place,” said Dartmouth College government professor Linda Fowler. Trump won the state’s first-in-the-nation primary by double digits and rejecting his candidacy outright could anger members of Ayotte’s base. Embracing Trump fully, however, could alienate independent voters, who could decide the Senate contest and who polls show lean toward Clinton.

“I don’t think there’s a good way for her to handle this,” she said. “All the options are costly.”

Ayotte’s stance so far has been to support Trump while criticizing some of his more controversial positions and statements, including his attacks on the parents of a fallen U.S. soldier.

She continued to back the nominee even after he verbally attacked her in the press, telling the Washington Post this summer she had offered him “zero support” and claiming he was beating her in the polls. Trump has since endorsed her campaign, but has stayed silent on her recent role model comments.

They came Monday night in the first televised U.S. Senate debate between Ayotte and Hassan, when the Republican was asked whether children should aspire to be like Trump.

At first Ayotte wouldn’t answer directly, but when pressed, she said, “I think that certainly there are many role models that we have, and I believe he can serve as president, and so absolutely I would do that.”

Hours after the debate, Ayotte issued a statement saying she “misspoke.”

“While I would hope all of our children would aspire to be president, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have set a good example and I wouldn’t hold up either of them as role models for my kids,” she wrote in a statement that she repeated to reporters Tuesday.

Democrats seized on the comments and pushed Tuesday for Ayotte to explain why children should look up to Trump.

“Let’s not forget. Donald Trump called a Miss Universe pageant winner Miss Piggy. He’s insulted women for being ‘flat-chested’ and having a ‘fat ass,’ ” former state Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan said on a press call with reporters. “Kelly Ayotte should explain to the people of New Hampshire exactly what about Donald Trump she thinks our children should emulate.”

Ayotte isn’t the only one who has had to contend with the top of the ticket.

In an awkward exchange that aired on CNN recently, Hassan three times dodged a reporter’s question about whether she thinks Clinton is honest and trustworthy. Hassan’s campaign later clarified she does find her party’s presidential nominee trustworthy.

She addressed it in Monday’s debate. “I certainly didn’t give my best answer,” said Hassan, the state’s second-term governor. “I find her honest and trustworthy as do many other people. . . . 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 fired back, saying she is willing to stand up to Trump, while accusing Hassan of blindly supporting 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.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report. Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com)

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