Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is trying to launch herself out of the public relations hole she dug earlier this week with her debate stage assessment of Donald Trump. And she's doing it in a remarkably direct way.
On Thursday, Ayotte's campaign released a 30-second TV ad of her strolling along a verdant college campus, looking directly in the camera and saying: “Let's be honest: Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are far from perfect, and I'm not perfect, either.”
Translation: I made a mistake when I said in a debate earlier this week that Trump is a role model for New Hampshire children. Also, here's why I'd be a good senator.
(Update: As we note below, a new poll suggests Ayotte may not have been in such a deep poll: A new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll taken before and after the debate shows her ahead of her challenger by six points.)
But what's fascinating about this is that Ayotte is now only the second Senate Republican to explicitly mention Trump in a TV ad. And it's a near 180 of her game plan with how to deal with the Republican presidential nominee.
(The first senator to mention Trump in a TV ad was Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois and one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents, who ran an ad this summer touting his un-endorsement of Trump.)
Aside from Kirk, most Senate Republicans up for reelection in November have simply tried to pretend Trump doesn't exist. Until this point, we would have included Ayotte on that list. She has stretched the limits of the English language when she said “supports” but doesn't “endorse" Trump. She hasn't appeared once with Trump in New Hampshire, a critical swing state, and she dodges reporters' questions on Trump's latest controversial thing he says.
But because of one moment in a debate where she decided to convey her support for Trump, Ayotte is now forced to confront his existence — and the awkward role he plays in her Senate campaign, which is one of the most competitive in the nation and could decide which party controls the Senate next year.
When Ayotte said on Monday that she'd "absolutely" consider Trump a role model, the Internet blew up and Democratic opponent Gov. Maggie Hassan's team jumped on it. Ayotte retracted the remark in a statement immediately after, saying she had misspoken.
It looks like her team has spent the next few days figuring out how to do even more damage control, sensing that just saying she "misspoke" is not enough.
Which is probably a smart calculation. When it comes to Trump, Ayotte has to walk a line so thin it's nearly invisible. She has decided she can't afford to lose support from her Republican base that will vote for Trump, but she also needs to win over voters who are turned off by him.
A RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Clinton is leading Trump by six points and Ayotte is up by one. Which means Ayotte is going to need Clinton supporters to cross party lines and vote for her if she wants to win.
That's not impossible: A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll taken in the days before and after the Senate debate didn't find any erosion of support for Ayotte. In fact, the poll put her ahead of Hassan by six points, 47 to 41.
And according to a Washington Post analysis in September of reputable public polls, the average Senate Republican was polling four points ahead of Trump. Ayotte was polling an average of eight points ahead of Trump at the time, suggesting he could lose by that much in her state and she could hang on.
But she has to keep opposing constituencies happy in the process.
And as we've seen this week in New Hampshire, that's a very difficult thing to do. Ayotte is a reminder that for many Republicans, when it comes to Trump questions, there are no good answers.