In Republican debate, Ayotte brushes off Rubens to focus on Hassan

  • Jim Rubens and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte smile before a Republican debate on WMUR on Wednesday. Rubens will challenge Ayotte in Tuesday’s primary for her Senate seat. AP

  • Jim Rubens gestures as U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte during the U.S. Senate Republican Debates held at WMUR-TV Station in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader Via AP Pool) Thomas Roy

  • Jim Rubens holds up a finger as U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte answers a question during the U.S. Senate Republican Debates held at WMUR-TV Station in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader Via AP Pool) Thomas Roy

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 08, 2016

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte sparred with Republican opponent Jim Rubens over immigration, foreign policy and gun rights in a primary debate televised on WMUR Wednesday, but focused most of her attacks on Democrat challenger Maggie Hassan.

Ayotte is seeking a second six-year term in the U.S. Senate and polls show a close match-up between the Republican and Hassan, the state’s sitting governor. With Rubens standing beside her, Ayotte repeatedly sought to turn focus to Hassan. She criticized the Democrat for her support of the Iran nuclear deal, and for opposing legislation that would have banned so-called sanctuary cities in the state.

“Sanctuary cities are dangerous,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte faces off against Rubens, a former state senator from Etna, in the GOP primary on Tuesday.

He accused Ayotte on Wednesday of abandoning her Republican values in Washington, hammering her for backing the so-called “Gang of Eight” compromise that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Rubens ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2014 and jumped into the race again earlier this year.

“I supported her in part because she promised not to do amnesty and to secure the borders,” he said. “And she gets down there to Washington, drinks that Kool-Aid they serve and voted for the Gang of Eight.”

Ayotte said she supports solving the “broken immigration system” and enforcing use of the e-verify system that lets employers check a job applicants’ immigration status.

She split with Rubens over his call for a “complete shutdown of immigration, refugee intake from any country known to harbor terrorists.”

Ayotte said the government should not admit refugees unless it can guarantee they don’t have ties to the Islamic State. But she advocated for the United States to take in translators from Afghanistan or other Middle Easterners who have worked in the U.S. military.

“I wouldn’t want to prohibit someone like that, who has put their life on the line for our military, if they are an appropriate refugee,” she said.

Ayotte’s seat is seen as one of the most vulnerable this election cycle. The former state attorney general was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 amid a national GOP wave.

This year, the candidates must contend with the top of the ticket. Both Ayotte and Rubens voiced support for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. But Ayotte pointed out the two don’t always align and never mentioned the New York businessman by name.

“I will be voting for the Republican nominee, and I have had some disagreements with him,” she said. “It’s important we have a commander in chief who is going to take us in a stronger direction.”

Rubens, who has been an outspoken Trump supporter, repeatedly sought to tie Ayotte to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He said both women favor the same “failed nation building war strategy.” Rubens advocated for cutting “pork” in the U.S. defense spending by evaluating whether some American military bases around the world should be shuttered.

Ayotte pushed back, arguing she has been one of the “greatest critics” of the Obama administration’s plan to release detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The Republicans also split over Second Amendment rights and environmental protections. Rubens criticized Ayotte for backing a bipartisan proposal restricting firearm sales to people on the federal government’s no-fly list.

“Terrorists and criminals will simply buy guns on the black market. These feel-good, anti-gun bills will do nothing,” he said. “We have enemies on U.S. soil. This is exactly not the time to be weakening our gun rights.”

Ayotte backed her position. “I strongly believe that if you are a terrorist or a criminal you shouldn’t have a firearm,” she said.

Rubens opposes the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to curb carbon emissions, known as the Clean Power Plan. Ayotte was the first Republican in the U.S. Senate to publicly back the EPA plan.

The two did agree on some issues. Both oppose a repeal of the federal death penalty, and support imposing term limits on Congress.

Hassan’s campaign was critical of Ayotte’s performance, accusing her of trying to rewrite her record.

“Ayotte’s corporate special interest backers have poured $40 million dollars into New Hampshire to prop up her struggling campaign,” campaign spokesman Aaron Jacobs said. “But no amount of outside money can rewrite Ayotte’s real record of putting their priorities before the people and small businesses of New Hampshire.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)