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In N.H., Rising GOP Star Sets Sights On Washington

She was among the first vowing to fight for the repeal of what she calls the government's takeover of health care. And so far, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, who's running for U.S. Senate, seems to be resonating with voters in a state known for its fiscal conservatism.

Ayotte, the state's former attorney general, is one of four Republicans running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Judd Gregg. She has already caught the eye of the national GOP, which has dubbed her one of its up-and-coming stars.

Adjusting To The Public Eye

In New Hampshire, attorneys general are appointed to their position. That means Ayotte, 42, is waging her first-ever campaign. She is still getting used to the campaign trail -- and the cameras and microphones swirling around her.

"It is quite a mike, isn't it," she said laughing, while speaking at a town meeting for the Republican Party Committee in Hudson, N.H. "This doesn't happen everywhere. I want you to know that this is unusual," she said, referring to the presence of a national reporter.

What Ayotte is already used to is making the seamless pivot from small talk and schmoozing to her principal campaign talking points.

She compliments the town's new library, built with a large private donation, then eases into a homily on personal responsibility and the dangers of expecting the government to solve every challenge. Her stump speech centers on a promise to return the GOP to its core principles of less government and lower taxes.

"We have seen, unfortunately, [even] Republicans spend too much money," she said to voters. "And we, I think, need to acknowledge that there are times when, as Republicans, we lost our way on that issue as well."

Making Politics Personal

Ayotte, a mother of two, likes to present her politics as personal. She worries that the deficit will burden her own children -- who are 2 and 5. When she talks about supporting the military, she references her husband, Joe Daley, an Iraq war veteran.

Her husband is also a small-business owner. Ayotte often talks about helping him start his landscape company, saying she would shovel snow overnight before heading to her day job as attorney general.

Ayotte said she decided she had to run for Senate last year, while watching what she sees as the government's assault on small businesses and middle-class families like hers.

"We were yelling at our television, just frustrated that they don't get it in Washington," she said. "They think somehow the government is going to create the jobs. And I think it's a failure of leadership."

Ayotte is running against three other Republicans in the September primary: businessmen Bill Binnie and Jim Bender, and former gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne.

She started the race with relatively good name recognition. In her five years as attorney general, she developed a reputation as a tough prosecutor. For example, she sought the death penalty for a cop killer. But beyond that, her politics are relatively unknown.

Moving Away From Social Issues

Ayotte was first appointed attorney general by Republican Gov. Craig Benson, then reappointed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch. And she was apolitical in office -- leaving many voters with lots of questions about who Ayotte really is.

"Would you liken yourself more like a John McCain moderate or a Sarah Palin?" asked Hudson Republican Party Chair Rick LeVasseur, after Ayotte's stump speech.

Ayotte paused, and then said, "I'm going to be -- to take a line from [Massachusetts' newly elected Republican Sen.] Scott Brown -- a Kelly Ayotte Republican."

The ambiguity has left Ayotte open to knocks from Republicans skeptical of her conservative bona fides, as well as from Democrats who are already launching attack ads. One ad features The Who singing, "Who are you?"

Ayotte has called herself "pro-life," and she opposes gay marriage -- in a state that's just made it legal. But she doesn't usually talk about those social issues out on the stump.

Republican State Rep. Bob Haefner said it's a deliberate strategy, well-advised in a state that has turned younger and more to the left in recent years.

"I think the party's got to stay away from the social issues," he said. "I think the fiscal issues will attract independent voters, unless you start bringing in the social issues, and then you're going to lose them."

The Problem With Being 'Chosen'

Another thing New Hampshire's fiercely independent voters may not like is the way Ayotte seems to be the establishment's "chosen" candidate. She was heavily recruited by party leaders in Washington, D.C., and has benefited from big-name fundraisers in D.C. and New Hampshire.

Earlier this month, Arizona Sen. John McCain headlined an Ayotte rally and touted her as "the next generation of leadership of the Republican Party."

Both Republicans and Democrats have tried to use Ayotte's big-name backing against her. But she insists she is, and will remain, an outsider. She vows that even if elected, she will not move to D.C. but will commute from New Hampshire.

She likes to tell the story of the farmer in northern New Hampshire who gave her a bottle of what he called "New Hampshire water." He told her to take that to Washington, D.C., because "anyone who drinks the Washington water loses their common sense and forgets where they came from.'"

"I'm going to remember that story," she said. "I don't want to lose my common sense, or get too caught up in Washington and forget where I came from."

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