CONCORD, N.H. — In 2002, Kelly Ayotte was a 34-year-old state prosecutor when she was called into the office of Craig Benson, the newly elected governor.
Benson, a Republican, told her he needed a legal counsel, a job Ayotte appeared keen to land. At the close of the interview, though, Ayotte concluded on an unexpected note.
“I would love to be your legal counsel,” she told Benson. “But I would really like to be your attorney general.”
“I liked her aggressiveness,” Benson recalled this week. He appointed Ayotte legal counsel, and a year and a half later made her the state’s first female attorney general when the man he had named to the post stepped down amid a scandal.
Ayotte’s swift rise to attorney general illustrates what many say are core traits — steely resolve, a savvy read on people, and a keen ability to create opportunities. It also highlights what others see as her calculated, vaulting ambition.
Now, Ayotte, less than two years into her first Senate term, hailing from one of the smallest states in the nation, is being considered as a serious contender for the vice presidency, aided by a profile potentially helpful to the ticket. She has firmly established conservative bona fides but appeals to independents with a biography that her boosters call grounded and “normal” — a mother of two who lives in her hometown and is married to a landscaper who flew combat missions during the Iraq War.
Whether she wins the nomination ultimately may be dictated by national electoral politics — a New Englander brings little geographic benefit to former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. And, if chosen, she could face questions about her role as attorney general in the state’s failure to detect large-scale fraud at Financial Resources Mortgage, a New Hampshire firm that swindled millions from investors in a Ponzi scheme.
There is also the issue of her slim experience on the national stage.
Ayotte supporters are quick to note that she has logged close to the amount of time in the Senate that Barack Obama had when he ran for president. And although they don’t draw the comparison, she, like Obama, is known as a cool head, able to separate emotion from fact — a trait that has won her support from pivotal Republican establishment figures.
“She’s got ice water in her veins when it comes to pressure situations,” said Steve Duprey, a leading Republican who, among others, recruited her to run for the Senate seat vacated by Judd Gregg.
Family and friends say that if Ayotte harbored political ambitions, it was never obvious when she was young. Her mother, Kathy Veracco, a well-connected lobbyist, said that growing up in Nashua, Ayotte, an only child (she has a step-brother and two half-brothers) never ran for office in school, preferring to devote her time to the ski team.
“Politics was never a big part of her life, other than knowing I did lobbying and talked about what went on around Concord,” Veracco said.
In 1993, she graduated from the Villanova University School of Law and returned to New Hampshire to clerk for a state Supreme Court justice and enter private practice. Representing one of the Charlestown defendants in the 1994 Hudson, N.H., armored car guard killings, she learned the ins and outs of DNA evidence — knowledge that helped win her a slot in the attorney general’s office in 1998
Ayotte was known as a detail-oriented prosecutor who earned the respect of police and fellow prosecutors, but was not comfortable with the gallows humor common in the office.
“She wasn’t the one cracking one-liners,” said Jim Rosenberg a colleague there. “She was always very, very careful.”
She rose quickly in the ranks, and after a six-month turn as Benson’s legal counsel, he tapped her for deputy attorney general and a little more than a year later, attorney general. Colleagues say her politics were never obvious in the office, though critics say she used her position to angle for higher office. Most obviously calculated, they say, was her choice in 2005 to defend the state’s abortion parental notification law at the US Supreme Court.
The law, passed two years earlier, was the state’s first significant restriction on abortion and among the strictest such laws in the nation at the time. It had been invalidated by two federal courts and the newly elected Democratic governor, who had just reappointed Ayotte to her post, opposed it.
Ayotte not only took the case to the US Supreme Court, but argued it herself. The court didn’t fully agree and the law ultimately was repealed by the Legislature, but Ayotte earned a national stage on a pivotal issue that she would later trumpet during her run for the Senate. It helped her clinch key endorsements, including Sarah Palin’s.
“Kelly Ayotte is very smart and very hard working,” Rosenberg said. “But one can look back on some decisions and view some things as politically opportunistic. Taking that case to the Supreme Court was one of them.”
Ayotte disputed that characterization, saying, “If I am going to pick and choose the laws I defend, I wouldn’t be doing my duty as attorney general.’’
In 2010, Ayotte came under fierce criticism in an open letter by former prosecutors who charged her with pursuing for political gain the death penalty in the case of a slain police officer. They cited a 2006 e-mail with the subject line “re: Get ready to run. . . ” to Ayotte from a Republican strategist she had worked with in Benson’s office. Ayotte wrote, “A police officer was killed and I announced that I would seek the death penalty.” The strategist responded: “Where does AG Ayotte stand on the death penalty? BY THE SWITCH.”
Ayotte said the e-mails and others made public were blown out of proportion in the heat of the Senate race and added, “I prosecuted that case in accordance with the laws of New Hampshire.”
Ayotte said she decided to leave the attorney general’s office and enter politics in 2009 because she was dismayed by the state of the country.
Opponents say she was lucky in the Senate race. She clinched the Palin endorsement at the height of Palin-fever during a lengthy primary battle against well-funded opponents and then faced a weak Democratic opponent. Efforts to connect her with the FRM scandal, as the Ponzi scheme was known, largely failed, despite a report in May 2010 by the state attorney general citing her administration for failing to follow up on consumer complaints to her office that were forwarded to the banking department.
“Voters looked closely at Kelly’s record as AG and elected her by 22 points. That speaks volumes,” said Jeff Grappone, Ayotte’s spokesman.
Duprey said her win was owed, in particular, to hard work, including her embrace of the often unpalatable task of fund-raising calls.
As senator, Ayotte has been a reliably Republican vote — siding with her party in blocking votes on the Buffett rule to raise taxes on the wealthy and on a measure to make it easier for women to pursue pay-inequality claims. However, she sided with environmentalists in opposing a resolution that would have delayed a new power-plant emissions rule. Her weeks are spent in Washington, D.C., but she flies home on Thursdays to be with her husband and children who are 7 and 4, said her mother.
“I guess I have always brought her up thinking she can do whatever she puts her mind to, and she’s always been successful doing that,” Veracco said.Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@