In a tight race that could determine control of the Senate, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire described Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as “absolutely” a role model for children during a televised debate Monday, then later backtracked in the face of criticism.
“I misspoke tonight. 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,” Ayotte said in a statement less than three hours after the debate ended.
Ayotte and her opponent, Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, have been questioned throughout the year about their support for the presidential nominees. Ayotte has said she will vote for Trump, her fellow Republican, but not endorse him.
But when asked by a debate moderator Monday whether she considers Trump a role model for children, she answered awkwardly.
“I think that certainly there are many role models that we have and I believe that he can serve as president, and so absolutely,” Ayotte said.
Hassan pounced on Ayotte’s answer, saying it was an 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 [to] as the president of the United States.’’
In response to a follow-up question, Ayotte sought to cast herself as more independent than Hassan, who has endorsed Clinton and campaigned with the Democratic nominee as recently as last week.
“This is an area where Governor Hassan has been in lockstep with Secretary Clinton. I haven’t heard [any] major disagreements she’s had with Secretary Clinton, so who is going to stand up on behalf of the people of New Hampshire,” Ayotte asked.
Ayotte tried to portray Hassan as tied to Clinton.
‘‘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 e-mails. We haven’t heard Governor Hassan call her out at all on those issues, which are deeply troubling to the American people.’’
In a CNN interview in August, Hassan struggled three times to say whether she found Clinton to be honest and trustworthy.
When asked about it Monday, she admitted it wasn’t her best answer, but said she did find Clinton to be honest and trustworthy, particularly on national security issues.
Polls show the race is virtually deadlocked, as it has been since Hassan announced she would challenge Ayotte last year.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.