New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte says she "misspoke" when she said Donald Trump is a role model for children. Democrats seized on the Republican lawmaker's tortured response and pressed her to explain what about Trump children should emulate.
Responding to a question during a Monday evening debate with Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat challenging Ayotte in a close Senate race, the Republican senator said "absolutely" she would tell a child to aspire to be like the New York real estate mogul. But her campaign issued a statement shortly afterward, in which Ayotte reversed herself.
"I misspoke tonight," the statement said. "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."
Hassan has worked to tie Ayotte to Trump, who is trailing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the state. Ayotte, who has tried to distance herself from Trump, 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 for a child. 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 our nuclear codes," Hassan said. "She is going to vote to make him the leader of our country and somebody that our children will be exposed to as the president of the United States."
The Hassan campaign also moved quickly, putting out a digital ad that highlighted Trump's recent criticism of a former Miss Universe who gained weight, his mocking imitation of Clinton's health-related stumble after a Sept. 11 memorial and his other attacks on women and the disabled.
"To most of us, those with common sense regardless of ideology or party affiliation, these comments and actions by the Republican nominee completely disqualify him from being considered any sort of role model. But not to Kelly Ayotte," Democratic National Committee Committeewoman and former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan said. "Kelly Ayotte should explain to the people of New Hampshire exactly what about Donald Trump she thinks our children should emulate -- the sexism, the ripping off of small businesses, insulting or nations' heroes, refusing to pay taxes, being a billion dollar loser in business?
Sullivan also dismissed Ayotte's efforts to clarify her comments several hours later, saying she only did so after realizing what a "horrible mistake she had made" and one that "could cost her an election."
"You can't really walk something like that back," Sullivan said.
Trump loomed large in the debate following revelations over the weekend by The New York Times that he claimed more than $900 million in losses in 1995, enough to legally reduce his tax bill to zero for as many as 18 years. 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," Hassan said.
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."