Kelly Ayotte, the tough former prosecutor and wife of an Iraq war vet, seemed to be on a glide path to the Republican nomination in New Hampshire and perhaps the U.S. Senate.
But GOP rivals have tripped her up and an endorsement from Sarah Palin has been a mixed blessing.
National Republicans recruited Ayotte, who served both Republican and Democratic governors as attorney general, in their bid to keep the seat of three-term Sen. Judd Gregg, who is retiring. The GOP saw the mother of two as a formidable opponent to Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes, an ambitious attorney who was choosing not to seek a third term in the U.S. House.
Still, Ayotte drew primary challengers who have questioned her record and cast doubts on her pursuit of a now-closed New Hampshire mortgage firm at the center of a Ponzi scheme. Her closest competitor, multimillionaire businessman Bill Binnie, has given his campaign $3.5 million to run ads critical of Ayotte.
Binnie has focused on jobs — New Hampshire's unemployment rate is 5.9 percent, well below the national average of 9.5 percent — while Ayotte talks about reining in Washington spending.
And the surprise backing from Palin — coveted in other states — drew a scathing, signed front-page editorial in the state's largest newspaper, known for its conservative slant.
"Sarah Palin's endorsement of Kelly Ayotte for U.S. Senate should neither surprise nor upset the other campaigns. The race will be won by the candidate who impresses New Hampshire voters, and New Hampshire voters are rarely impressed by what outsiders have to say," New Hampshire Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid wrote.
Despite a disciplined campaign based on the simple message that Washington must stop its spending, Ayotte remains in a tighter-than-anticipated fight with six Republicans ahead of the state's Sept. 14 primary. Private polling for both parties shows Ayotte ahead in the primary, but Binnie's massive spending on ads — airing on the state's one major television station and in nearby Boston — has cut Ayotte's once-sizable lead.
Strategists see a tightening race for a seat Republicans have held for almost three decades.
"In New Hampshire, the Republican voters, independent voters and enlightened Democrats all seem to have a lot of energy and want to clean the rascals out," said John H. Sununu, the state GOP chairman. "There's so much energy out there it's almost hard to make sure it's harnessed in the right direction."
Ayotte is hardly the first Washington-recruited candidate to run into problems in a primary. Voters have rejected at least three other establishment candidates amid growing frustrations.
In Kentucky, Republican Trey Grayson fell to tea party-backed Rand Paul in May. White House-backed Sen. Arlen Specter didn't make it through his Democratic primary against Rep. Joe Sestak. Utah Republicans denied Sen. Bob Bennett their endorsement for a fourth term, instead going with outsider lawyer Mike Lee.
Binnie highlights his outsider status on the campaign trail — and on the air, thanks to a fortune estimated at $400 million.
"Kelly Ayotte, former attorney general, knows how to put people in jail," an announcer says in one of Binnie's ads. "Bill Binnie, successful businessman, knows how to put people in jobs and fix our economy."
Ayotte's time as the state's top prosecutor also is drawing fire from Hodes, who is on the air with ads that argue Ayotte should have stopped what prosecutors now call the largest Ponzi scheme in New Hampshire history. Ayotte was attorney general when complaints surfaced about a mortgage firm now accused of swindling investors out of millions of dollars. But under state law, the complaints were sent to the state banking department, which has jurisdiction over such matters.
Then there's Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee who has endorsed "mama grizzly" female candidates. Her political shop gave Ayotte's campaign just a few minutes notice on the pending endorsement, announced on Facebook and ridiculed on The Union Leader's front page.
"Don't fret over what a 'Mama Grizzly' from Alaska does," wrote McQuaid, the newspaper publisher.
Although the endorsement may turn off voters come November, Ayotte, who had $1.2 million in campaign cash at the end of June, leads her website with it: "Help Sarah Palin fight to elect a true conservative in New Hampshire." The endorsement has helped her raise money.
The site then offers an opportunity for visitors to donate to Ayotte's effort to keep pace with Binnie and — if she makes it past the primary — ensure she avoids the problems that have plagued cash-poor Senate nominees after tough Democratic primaries in Ohio and Arkansas.
The seven-way Republican primary also includes lawyer Ovide Lamontagne, a conservative who unsuccessfully ran as the Republican nominee for governor in 1996, and businessman Jim Bender. Lamontagne's deep ties to the state's activists have failed to catapult him in the polls. He had less than $200,000 on hand.
Similarly, Bender hired Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's campaign manager, but has failed to attract the same tea party support that helped Brown. He is carrying $325,000 in debt.
Elliott reported from Washington.
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