WINDHAM — U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte may be facing former state Sen. Jim Rubens and several longshot candidates in next week’s primary election, but they warranted little mention on the campaign trail Friday.
“She’s going on to the general election,” declared Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, stumping alongside Ayotte, at a town hall at Northland Farms Business Center here.
Ayotte was more circumspect, reminding audiences in Windham and Amherst to vote on Tuesday. But her focus, as in a debate earlier this week, was clear: setting the stage for the general-election matchup against Gov. Maggie Hassan by tying Hassan to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Ernst repeatedly hammered Hassan for supporting the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran.
And she noted a Hassan interview last month in which the governor thrice skirted questions about whether Clinton is honest and trustworthy.
But one political figure whose shadow looms over the New Hampshire Senate race remained far from the senators’ lips on Friday: They did not mention Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during speeches and Q&As in Windham and at the Amherst town hall. (They also made stops in Manchester and Kingston.)
Ayotte is attempting to thread the needle of local and national politics carefully in this campaign, simultaneously distancing herself from Trump, whom she supports but has said she will not endorse, while linking Hassan to Clinton.
Asked about the Trump campaign’s recent public statements that Vladimir Putin is a stronger leader than President Obama, Ayotte disagreed with her party’s standard-bearer, who regularly praises the authoritarian Russian president.
She told the Union Leader that Obama had been “tepid at best” in confronting Putin. “But I certainly don’t think that we should compare our President to Vladimir Putin.”
Richard Joseph, a Windham conservative who’s leaning toward Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson, said he was impressed by Ayotte after her town hall.
“She’s in favor of a strong military, and I think that’s paramount,” he said, adding that he appreciated her pragmatism on entitlement reform: “People need to sit down and talk about this like adults.”
Along with questions about Social Security and Medicare, national security dominated much of the discussion Friday. At the veterans’ town hall in Amherst, Ayotte lambasted Senate Democrats for opposing legislation that she said would have held Veterans Affairs Department employees more accountable.
“They don’t want to change the status quo,” she said. “Well, guess what? We need accountability.”
The senators also emphasized improvements to the Veterans Choice Program and progress on aiding veterans who have been sexually assaulted.
Ernst, the first female combat veteran in the Senate, called on Hassan to agree to a foreign policy debate with Ayotte.
Ayotte also took multiple questions in Windham about the Granite State’s opioid epidemic and lack of treatment beds. The senator cited her work in shepherding the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act into law. And she said she has recently started focusing more on examining potential drug trafficking across the Canadian border.
But it was Ayotte’s constituent services that resonated most for some attendees. Deborah and Ronald Kaplan of Milford, already supporters, said Ayotte’s office had helped Ronald with his veteran benefits when bureaucracy ensnared them.
“I’d be on the phone every day,” Deborah Kaplan said. As of the past few months, she added, “it’s much better now. It was horrible.”