CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte casts herself as independent, focused on New Hampshire over party politics in her re-election bid. But now she's trying to fight off a different label, one that Democrats will assign her at every turn: Loyal ally of Donald Trump.
Ayotte's rival, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, pounced even before the dust had settled this past week in Trump's newly clear path to the Republican presidential nomination.
"He is dangerous to the country," Hassan told reporters. "I am appalled that Sen. Ayotte is supporting him, and I think she absolutely will need to be held accountable for Donald Trump's statements and positions."
On Ayotte's tricky path to another term, Trump is a potentially devastating roadblock. Ayotte repeatedly has said she'll support the eventual GOP nominee, but on Trump's first official day as the presumptive nominee her campaign offered a tortured response. She plans to support the nominee — no name mentioned — but as a candidate herself, she will not endorse.
Vulnerable Republicans nationwide are struggling with how to handle Trump, but Ayotte's position may be among the most delicate. New Hampshire tilts Democratic in presidential years, and polling shows Trump is deeply unpopular among New Hampshire voters, including the independents Ayotte desperately needs to support her.
Republicans need to hold the New Hampshire seat to keep their majority in the Senate next year, but the odds are tough. The GOP is defending 24 seats to the Democrats' 10 and seven of those seats are in states President Barack Obama won twice — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire.
Ayotte has cautiously disagreed with Trump's more bombastic remarks, but criticizing him more overtly could undermine her already fragile relationship with some conservatives.
"She's got to say she'll support Trump," said Donna Sytek, a former New Hampshire House speaker and co-chairwoman of Ayotte's campaign. "That's making the best of a bad situation."
Among voters, Paula Tate-Moreau of Lee, New Hampshire, called Trump a "loose cannon," but said she'll likely split her ticket in November with votes for likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Ayotte. An independent who leans Republican, Tate-Moreau doesn't see a problem with Ayotte's support-but-not-endorse distinction.
"That's her party, and I think that a lot of the Republicans are having the same issue," she said. "I don't think that anybody can be held accountable for what somebody else says."
But Kristen Bibeault, of Laconia, said she questions Ayotte's judgment.
"If she's going to feel that she can support him then that's kind of scary for me," Bibeault said, adding that she plans to back Hassan and is largely unfamiliar with Ayotte's record.
Katherine Bucklin Stearns, an Andover lawyer who doesn't identify with either political party, said she doesn't expect her intense dislike of Trump to sway her opinion.
"I try to vote for the person and not the party," she said.
Ayotte's campaign argues that Clinton offers no favors to Hassan.
Clinton's "deep unpopularity with New Hampshire voters will be a major liability for Hassan given their close ties," Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson said.
Polls show Clinton is unpopular with most New Hampshire voters, but not as much as Trump. A late April poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows 75 percent of likely New Hampshire voters view him negatively compared to 58 percent for Clinton.
With much of the spotlight on Ayotte, Hassan has conducted a relatively under-the-radar campaign, but there are signs it's ramping up. She attended out-of-state fundraising events 12 days in April and launched her first television ad this week. It's a minutelong spot with her son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. Filmed in Hassan's home, she speaks about Ben's first day of school and the people who have helped him integrate into society — a message in stark contrast to the divisiveness of the 2016 campaign.
"It made it so clear to me how much you can accomplish when you work together," Hassan says to the camera. There's no mention of political affiliation.
As Hassan works to cultivate a positive image, outside groups are doing the dirty work against Ayotte, launching ads criticizing her opposition to abortion and resistance to considering Obama's Supreme Court nominee. Polling suggests the Supreme Court arguments are working. A recent University of New Hampshire poll that shows 60 percent of people favor a vote on Judge Merrick Garland also shows a drop in Ayotte's overall favorability.
But the poll contained good news for Ayotte: Among independent voters, she has a significant edge over Hassan.
"What the American people want is they want people to work together," Ayotte told reporters last Friday when asked about chaos in her party. "That certainly is going to be my focus."