Former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) made her first public appearance as a potential Senate candidate Monday night, answering skeptics who worry about her conservative credentials.
Ayotte, who had been appointed to her post by both Republican and Democratic governors, resigned her office in July to explore a bid to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R). It was a major recruiting victory for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) — but one that developed into a relationship for which both the NRSC and Ayotte have had to answer.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who heads the NRSC, has denied his committee is publicly backing Ayotte.
"As a general rule we would not endorse anyone that did not ask for that endorsement, and Kelly Ayotte has not asked for an endorsement," Cornyn told reporters last week. "I respect ultimately the right of the people of New Hampshire to select their own candidate. I think it would be presumptuous of us to pick one when neither the candidate nor the circumstances would warrant it."
But some Granite State Republicans still see the unwelcome hand of Washington dabbling in their affairs.
"This isn't a state where you can bigfoot, and i think they're finding that out," said one Republican unaffiliated with any Senate race.
Cornyn and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will host a fundraiser for Ayotte in September, and sources tell The Hill the committee's associate political director, Neva Foley, was in New Hampshire to help get Ayotte's campaign off the ground.
An NRSC spokeswoman said Foley is no longer in New Hampshire and refused to discuss what she was doing in the Granite State, citing a policy against discussing strategy.
Privately, Republican strategists acknowledge that the Washington establishment backs Ayotte. But as Ayotte continues to explore making a bid, the national party's support has proven a rallying cry for conservatives anxious to avoid being handed a centrist nominee.
Instead, many are pushing for Ovide Lamontagne (R), a businessman and one-time Republican gubernatorial nominee with a good relationship with conservatives, to jump into the race.
The NRSC points out that there is no competitive primary yet. Lamontagne has yet to announce he will run — and, for that matter, neither has Ayotte.
Ayotte has not sought public office before, and her positions remained largely unknown. On Tuesday, before a friendly audience of Republicans in Wolfeboro, she portrayed herself as a tough-on-crime prosecutor who backs the Second Amendment.
Ayotte stayed away from social issues in her speech, according to some who were in the room, but she did tell questioners afterward that she is anti-abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's health.
In essence, Ayotte's speech was "a lot of canned, generic conservative statements," said Doug Lambert, an Ayotte critic who runs the conservative blog GraniteGrok.com. "If you like Judd Gregg, I think you're going to find that Kelly Ayotte is simply Judd Gregg in a new package."
Others said Ayotte's slow start is a wise political move, especially given that she is running her first race.
"She's taking things slow out of the gate and taking her time to get a feel for the lay of the land," said state Rep. D.J. Bettencourt (R). "You don't want to rush out to the scene too quickly and make a mistake that could hurt you down the road."
Dick Bennett, a Republican pollster in Manchester, said Ayotte's initial speech should focus on her background as attorney general, but that she will have to expand beyond her own experiences to woo GOP voters.
"That's a good introduction for her, but as time goes on, where does she stand on the issues?" Bennett asked. "She's been reaching out to Republicans. She's doing the things that she needs to do."
Lamontagne, though, is waiting in the wings. He has signed up two experienced Republican operatives, Jim Merrill and Charlie Spies, to help him explore his own bid. Both Merrill and Spies are veterans of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) presidential campaign.
Lamontagne "comes off as very articulate and very likable. He's going to be a very formidable candidate," Bettencourt said. "It's very likely that he'll get in the race."
And the race may get more crowded yet. Sean Mahoney, a Portsmouth businessman whom some think may get in the race, also showed up at the Wolfeboro meeting, one source noted with interest. Mahoney did not speak, but his presence suggested that he has not completely abandoned hopes of making a bid.
Mahoney did not respond to a message seeking comment.