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Ayotte Becoming Gun Control Lightning Rod

Of the senators who have become lightning rods for voting against expanded criminal background checks for gun buyers, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte is drawing the most bolts.

Video of Ayotte being questioned by the daughter of the principal killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., has gone viral.

And Ayotte has become an early target of an election-season-style media campaign by a gun control superPAC created by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, an ex-astronaut. The radio ad being aired in New Hampshire by Americans for Responsible Solutions comes three years before Ayotte, a first-term senator, even faces re-election.

All of this is meant to raise the pressure on Ayotte and colleagues whose "no" votes doomed the bipartisan measure to expand criminal background checks, which was championed by Sens. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican.

In last month's vote, the measure was favored by a 54-46 margin, but failed to reach the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate's procedural hurdle.

"It is not done," Jen Bluestein, spokesperson for Americans for Responsible Solutions, told me in an interview. "We are going to get [another] Senate background checks [vote], and Kelly Ayotte is going to have to vote again. So we are absolutely hoping that having felt the anger and disappointment of her constituents, she may choose to vote for a policy that we have broad consensus, including in New Hampshire, is a moderate policy on guns."

Jeff Grappone, Ayotte's press secretary, said in a statement he emailed to me: "Senator Ayotte's positions have been distorted through false attacks."

But even though Ayotte isn't up for re-election until 2016, Bluestein says the ad campaign is not premature.

"For a long time there has been a tremendous imbalance, and the only people you heard from politically on this issue was the NRA," Bluestein says. "So we're not going to wait until the year that Kelly Ayotte is up for re-election and then hope that we can remind people of a vote she took. ... We're going to communicate in real time about the vote she's taking, so over the course of her tenure in her first term as a senator, her constituents hear about this moment where she chose to reject a message that they had sent loud and clear."

An overwhelming majority of New Hampshire residents, like Americans in other states, appear to support expanded background checks. A recent New England College poll found an 88 percent approval for universal background checks, which would extend current checks for criminal history beyond stores to gun shows and Internet sales.

A survey by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling suggested that Ayotte's approval rating had dropped by 4 percentage points, and her disapproval rate was up 11 points after the gun vote, when compared with a poll in October.

While gun control advocates want Ayotte to feel the heat, they could be in for some disappointment.

"At risk of sounding like a total political hack, I've got to say this is a 100 percent manufactured controversy," says Fergus Cullen, former head of the state's Republican Party and a communications consultant. "Fifty percent manufactured by out-of-state interests with the cooperation of 50 percent in-state Democratic activists. ... This is not a spontaneous, authentic, grass-roots, middle-of-the-road uprising against Sen. Ayotte. It just isn't."

Can Ayotte be pressured to change her vote?

Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist, thinks it's unlikely.

"She would be awfully cautious of such a thing because for her you'd have the worst of both worlds," Scala said in an interview. "I'm not sure that her opponents are going to readily forgive her for her first vote. And in the meanwhile, her supporters, gun rights advocates and so forth, will be upset. Now that she's cast that first vote, it's difficult to walk it back."

And she could open herself up to one of the most dreaded of all possibilities for Republican incumbents -- a primary challenge from the right. For Ayotte, who narrowly won the Republican nomination in 2010, that's not an insignificant consideration, Scala says.

He does see the potential for Ayotte's gun vote and the negative attention it's drawing to make her a more polarizing politician. While that can be a plus in party primaries, it can mean political death in general-election years like 2016.

That's especially true in a swing state like New Hampshire, where voters who define themselves as independents can make the difference on Election Day.

"There's the frying pan and there's the fire for Ayotte," Scala says. "It's a difficult balancing act."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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