CONCORD, N.H. - Sen. Kelly Ayotte's embrace of Donald Trump as a role model for children — and her abrupt reversal — underscored the risks the Republican presidential candidate poses for purple-state GOP senators who like her are battling for their political lives.
Ayotte, seeking a second Senate term from New Hampshire, used a televised debate against Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan to say she "absolutely" would tell a child to aspire to be like Trump. Her campaign quickly distributed a statement afterward saying she "misspoke," and Tuesday she told reporters that "neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have set a good example."
Ayotte's remark proved irresistible for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., an active campaigner for her party who's had repeated, sharp exchanges with Trump.
"Think about it: @realDonaldTrump calls Latinos rapists, African Americans thugs, & women fat pigs, & Kelly Ayotte thinks he's a role model," Warren tweeted.
Democrats chortled that Ayotte, considered one of the more vulnerable GOP incumbents, had fumbled with potentially devastating consequences for her re-election bid. They said she wounded herself twice: first by citing as a role model a candidate who's openly ridiculed women, the handicapped and others and second by a retreat that smacked of insincerity and political repositioning.
"I assume this question we're going to hear a lot more of in Senate debates, and Kelly Ayotte created the textbook on how not to answer," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said it was "the unqualified nature of it and her tone" that made Ayotte's comment truly damaging. "It's like, 'What are you talking about, sister?'" she said.
With the GOP's 54-46 Senate control at stake in November, Ayotte is among a half-dozen Republicans in competitive campaigns or running in swing states like Ohio, Florida and North Carolina that will help determine whether Trump or Clinton takes the White House. Asked Tuesday whether Trump was an exemplar for children, several of them avoided the trap.
"The simple answer is no" and neither is Clinton, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who's not endorsed Trump, told reporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. "Let's just say the vulgarity and gratuitous insults of people. This is not exactly the way I encourage my kids to behave."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also facing re-election, stopped short of labeling Trump a role model. Blunt "believes Missourians should choose their own role models," said campaign spokesman Burson Snyder.
And Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said, "I, like many Americans, take issue with some of the rhetoric and actions that have come from both him and Hillary Clinton, and neither are people I'd hold up as exemplary role models."
Trump slightly trails Clinton in the latest national polls after his latest taunts, which have included mimicking how the Democrat staggered to a car after being diagnosed with pneumonia and jeering a former Miss Universe for gaining weight. In a startling departure from most presidential candidates' efforts to avoid alienating blocs of voters, Trump has denigrated the handicapped, women, Hispanics and others.
"The message is run as local a race as possible, and try to stay away from Trump as much as you can," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist.
On Monday night, Ayotte initially answered indirectly when a debate moderator asked if she would point to Trump as a role model for children. When the questioner persisted, she said, "I believe he can serve as president so absolutely I would do that."
The campaign of Hassan, a two-term governor, quickly produced a 60-second internet ad featuring Ayotte's response and juxtaposing it with Trump comments imitating a handicapped reporter, referring to a woman's "fat, ugly face" and describing Fox News' Megyn Kelly as having "blood coming out of her wherever."
Around 39 per cent of New Hampshire voters are independents, with Republicans slightly outnumbering Democrats in the remaining group.
That makes questions like Monday night's difficult for Ayotte. Distancing herself from Trump risks upsetting his supporters, but embracing him too tightly could alienate independents and Clinton voters, whom she will need for re-election.
Clinton has led Trump by modest margins in recent New Hampshire polls.
Ayotte has laboured all year to express her views about Trump. She initially said she would support Trump but not endorse him, then in August said would vote for him but not endorse him.
Alan Fram reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Marc Levy in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jim Salter in St. Louis and Emery Dalesio in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.