Ayotte seemed caught off guard by the question but eventually came up with this answer: "There are many role models we have, and I believe he can serve as president and so absolutely."
Recognizing she may have just handed her opponent a cudgel, Ayotte released a statement after the debate saying she "misspoke" and essentially reversed her answer from hours before. Now, she says, she doesn't think Trump (nor Clinton) are good role models:
But the damage may have been done. For one, we're writing about it.
And if Hassan's team has their way, the word "absolutely" that will ring throughout New Hampshire between now and Election Day, especially since it comes after a week in which Trump got mired in a duel with a Latina beauty queen, appeared to mock Hillary Clinton's pneumonia and raised unfounded questions about Clinton's marriage.
Democrats are moving quickly to seize on this unexpected gift they've been handed. Hassan is holding a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning to talk about it, and the political arm of the abortion-advocate group NARAL Pro-Chioce America released a digital ad:
And we can see why they'd want to jump on this. Ayotte's "absolutely" answer fits perfectly into Democrats' game plan to try to align their opponents to the unpopular Trump. Recent polls have raised questions about whether that's working — a Washington Post September analysis of polls in the state showed Ayotte outperforming Trump by five points.
But Ayotte just handed Democrats another opportunity.
Ayotte's defense — to try to align her opponent with Clinton, who also struggles with popularity — may have some legs, too. (In an interview with CNN in August, Hassan declined three times to say whether Clinton is honest or trustworthy. She later said she thinks Clinton is both those things.)
But perhaps because Ayotte's reelection is one of the marquee Senate races in the nation right now, she has appeared to struggle more than other Republican senators with how to handle Trump. Or at least, she has had the spotlight on her in a difficult situation.
Ayotte was one of the first to walk the "support but not endorse" two-step, a line our Chris Cillizza argued is a distinction without a difference. The definition of endorse literally has support in it.
Ayotte is still walking that line. In Monday's debate, Ayotte was asked why she won't endorse Trump. Her reply: "Because I've had some disagreements with him, and I've been quite clear about those disagreements."
Ayotte has received national attention for her troubles with Trump. In May, late night TV host Stephen Colbert described Ayotte's agony this way: "She's in some sort of political quantum state. It's like Schrodinger's cat, except that she would rather endorse a dead cat than Donald Trump."
Five weeks before the election, her agony with whether to support, endorse, praise, condemn or even acknowledge her party's presidential nominee continues.