Donald Trump looming large in neck-and-neck N.H. Senate race

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Jumping to and from campaign events today, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte avoided even mentioning the name: Donald Trump.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte CBS News

When asked how Donald Trump is factoring in her neck-and-neck campaign for reelection, Ayotte replied “I think the people of New Hampshire are going to judge the senate race on who can best be their voice.”

“I am focusing on getting to meet people in New Hampshire, listening to them, taking to them about my record,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte has been walking the Trump tightrope all year trying not to alienate the conservatives who dominate New Hampshire’s Republican party, or the independents who make up more than a third of the state’s voters.

But she slipped up during a debate earlier in October.

Trump's lewd remarks 02:31

“Would you point to him as a role model?” the moderator asked.

“I think that certainly there are many role models that we have and I believe he can serve as president and so, absolutely, I would do that,” Ayotte replied.

Ayotte quickly walked back those comments, but then came the “Access Hollywood” tape, and the first-term senator dumped Trump.

“I wanted to be able to support the nominee of our party but I am a mother and an American first and a former prosecutor,” Ayotte said.

Two weeks later, the race is still dead even.

Ayotte’s Democratic opponent is current Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Gov. Maggie Hassan CBS News

“I am absolutely astonished, I continue to be surprised by how much she has been willing to stand with Donald Trump,” she said.

Hassan is using every opportunity to question what is really behind Ayotte’s disavowal of the GOP nominee. 

Does Hassan think it was political expediency and not principal? 

“She stood with him for most of the last year, supporting him repeatedly when asked whether she thought he could be president,” Hassan answered.

Democrats need to pick up five seats to retake the Senate, and a win in New Hampshire is key to that effort. The candidates are both very popular, well known female politicians, and both sides expect it to come down to the wire.

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    Julianna Goldman is a CBS News correspondent based in the Washington bureau.