CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said Tuesday she "misspoke" when she said Donald Trump is a role model for children, a tortured response that Democrats moved quickly to exploit in the competitive Senate race.
The Republican presidential nominee's past week of fat-shaming a beauty pageant winner and mocking imitation of an ailing Hillary Clinton combined with his past criticism of Hispanics, women and the disabled has put vulnerable GOP senators on the spot.
Ayotte, who is locked in a tight race with two-term Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, told a debate audience Monday evening that she "absolutely" would tell a child to aspire to be like the New York real estate mogul. A short time later, her campaign issued a statement in which Ayotte reversed herself and said she misspoke.
The freshman senator reiterated that point on Tuesday before taking a turn behind the counter at a McDonald's in Hudson, New Hampshire.
"I misspoke last night. While I hope that all children aspire to run for president, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have set a good example and I would not hold out either of them out as a role model for my children," she told reporters.
Democrats seized on Ayotte's answer and pressed her to explain what about Trump children should emulate. Hassan has worked to tie Ayotte to Trump, who is trailing presidential candidate Clinton in the state. Ayotte, who has tried to distance herself from Trump, has said she wouldn't endorse him but would vote for him.
Another vulnerable Republican senator, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, said Tuesday that Trump is not a role model, nor is Clinton.
"Not for my kids and I don't think for most American kids, for a variety of reasons, but honestly, neither is Hillary Clinton, I mean, the serial dishonesty, the repeated lies to the American people, to the families of Benghazi victims, the list is endless, and the serious ethical challenges," the senator said after an event in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. "Neither one of them is a role model, which is part of why this is such a frustrating presidential election for so many people."
Toomey has declined to endorse Trump despite being pressed repeatedly about his party's nominee. Questioned why Trump is not a role model, the senator issued a blistering attack on the candidate at the top of the Republican ticket.
"Let's just say the vulgarity and gratuitous insults of people. This is not exactly the way I encourage my kids to behave," he said.
Republicans are struggling to hold onto their Senate majority, with GOP incumbents in swing or Democratic-leaning states the most in jeopardy.
On Monday night, Ayotte seemed to be caught off guard when asked by one of the moderators whether she saw Trump as a role model for a child. At first, she sidestepped the question by saying she would tell a child to aspire to be the best person they can be and seek to run for the presidency. When she was asked again, she said she believed Trump "can serve for president" and "so absolutely I would do that."
Another moderator then pressed Ayotte to explain why she wouldn't endorse Trump if she felt that way.
"I've had some disagreements with him. I've been quite clear about those disagreements," she said without providing specifics.
Hassan pounced on Ayotte's answer, saying this was just another 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 our nuclear codes," Hassan said. "She is going to vote to make him the leader of our country and somebody that our children will be exposed to as the president of the United States."
The Hassan campaign also put out a digital ad that highlighted Trump's recent criticism of a former Miss Universe who gained weight, his mocking imitation of Clinton's health-related stumble after a Sept. 11 memorial and his other attacks on women and the disabled.
"Kelly Ayotte should explain to the people of New Hampshire exactly what about Donald Trump she thinks our children should emulate — the sexism, the ripping off of small businesses, insulting our nations' heroes, refusing to pay taxes, being a billion dollar loser in business?" said Democratic National Committee Committeewoman and former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan.
Sullivan also dismissed Ayotte's efforts to clarify her comments several hours later, saying she only did so after realizing what a "horrible mistake she had made" and one that "could cost her an election."
"You can't really walk something like that back," Sullivan said.
Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.