November 19. 2011 8:36PM

Sen. Ayotte to endorse Mitt Romney for President

Senior Political Reporter

MANCHESTER — U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte will back Mitt Romney for President on Sunday in the first endorsement of a Republican presidential hopeful by a member of the state's congressional delegation.

The New Hampshire Sunday News and have learned that the freshman lawmaker will formally endorse the former Massachusetts governor Sunday at 2:30 p.m. when she appears with him at a rally at Nashua City Hall. They will then visit nearby Jackie's Diner to meet with voters.

Ayotte, a Nashua native and resident, is the biggest “get” so far in the New Hampshire primary sweepstakes.

Although endorsements by top elected officials don't often sway independent-minded rank-and-file voters in the “Live Free or Die” state, the former attorney general is viewed as the most popular elected Republican in the state and is the party's top elected official.

Ayotte will be named a co-chair of Romney's national advisory committee and will be a surrogate for Romney not only in New Hampshire but also in other key states.

“She is a leader of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a rising star on the national stage,” said a Romney aide, who noted she has even been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate. “She will be an important surrogate for Governor Romney's pro-growth message in the Granite State and across the country.”

Ayotte joins former Gov. John H. Sununu, former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg and a long list of state lawmakers in Romney's corner.

In an interview, Ayotte told the Sunday News and she spoke with most of the presidential candidates during the past several months, “and I've been impressed by the amount and quality of time that Mitt Romney has spent campaigning in New Hampshire. He has been holding town hall meetings and answering the unscripted questions of New Hampshire voters.”

Ayotte said Romney “has proven through his experience as a successful businessman and as an effective governor and his excellent debate performances that he is best prepared to lead our country and also, very importantly, to make sure that Barack Obama is a one-term President.”

She said she is concerned that if the federal government “continues spending money we don't have and burdening our children with mountains of debt, the direction this President has been taking us will diminish our quality of life.”

Romney, she said, “will get America back to work and get our fiscal house in order.”

She also said that as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she believes Romney is qualified “to protect our country from terrorists.

“I know he will seek out the right advice and be a President, unlike this President, who will listen to his military commanders on key decisions around the world,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte said that although many polls have had Romney with big leads in the first-primary state, she knows from her experience in her own narrow GOP Senate primary win in September 2010 “that the last two weeks of this contest will be very competitive, and you can never take New Hampshire voters for granted.”

An “honored” Romney said in a statement that Ayotte “has emerged as a conservative leader in the fight to cut spending and create a government that is more accountable to the taxpayers.”

He called her “a tireless worker who understands that she serves the New Hampshire taxpayers and keeps a watchful eye on how their money is spent.”

Ayotte is the first of the Republican U.S. senators in the early primary and caucus states to endorse a presidential candidate.

Iowa's Charles Grassley, South Carolina's Jim DeMint and Florida's Marco Rubio have said they are staying neutral, while South Carolina's Lindsey Graham has not yet made an endorsement.

New Hampshire U.S. Reps. Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta also have not yet endorsed anyone in the presidential primary.