Eleven months ago, we met for coffee at Panera Bread, one of her favorite spots, in the corner of a strip mall south of Manchester, N.H. We huddled in a small padded booth, near the packets of sugar and half-and-half jugs. At the next table, young mothers, sipping gourmet grinds, laughed about husbands. Behind us, a businessman thumbed the Union Leader, munching on a chocolate croissant. No one seemed to recognize Kelly Ayotte.
My klatch mate was the state’s attorney general and in the middle of a heated GOP Senate primary, but she was not yet a Granite State star. How things have changed. When I meet Ayotte this time, she is on Capitol Hill, a 42-year-old U.S. senator in her first year.
Her desk is piled with papers from the Senate Budget Committee, where she has quickly developed a skinflint reputation much like that of her predecessor, Judd Gregg. Books and binders from the Senate Armed Services Committee line her shelves.
But it is on the presidential stage that Ayotte may make her biggest mark this year. As a prominent, fresh-faced Republican in New Hampshire, home to the first primary, she will likely play a key role in the early 2012 conversation.
Ayotte tells me that she is looking forward to the contest. Growing up in Nashua, N.H., “politics was like sports,” she chuckles. “It is part of the culture, part of our kitchen-table discussions. When the latest presidential candidates come through town, that’s what people would talk about.”
Of course, Ayotte urges all the potential GOP contenders to compete hard in New Hampshire, to not worry about getting their feet frozen in the snow. “But you better be able to answer questions here,” she says. “This is real retail politics: lots of house parties, picnics, nothing scripted, no sound bites. I’ll be watching for how they handle that.”
Ayotte will also closely watch tonight’s first primary debate, which will be held at Saint Anselm College. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and others are set to spar.
At the top of Ayotte’s debate watch-list are the debt and national security. Most important, she wants to hear concrete ideas from the candidates about fiscal reform, especially in light of the recent debate over Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget.
“I want to hear where all of them stand on Medicare and Medicaid,” she says. “I am not wedded to any one plan. I supported the Ryan plan when it came over here. I did not shy away from it. I admire his courage. With these programs going bankrupt, I’m open to any candidate coming up with their own plan, but leadership is needed on this issue.”
Ayotte adds that, beyond entitlements, economic growth must be a central part of the GOP message. She says that New Hampshire has weathered the recession better than most, with a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, for good reason.
“We really have a great model,” she says. “We do not have an income tax [or] sales tax and focus on limited government at the state level. It is a great regulatory and tax climate for businesses.” GOP candidates, take note.
Still, Ayotte will take her time mulling her options before backing a horse. “I may get in for a candidate,” she says, “but I do not have a timeline.” In fact, she predicts that other Republicans, many of whom she admires, could soon jump in and shake things up.
“We have a strong field, but it is not necessarily firm,” she says. “People like Rick Perry are saying they’re interested. I had breakfast with Rudy Giuliani a month ago, and I think he is very seriously considering it. He was a great mayor.”
Sarah Palin is another name that crops up. In early June, Ayotte and her husband, Joe Daley, had breakfast with Palin at the Golden Egg in Portsmouth, a historic port town on the narrow Atlantic seacoast. The meal reestablished Ayotte’s connection to Palin, who last summer dubbed her a “Granite Grizzly,” a play off Palin’s “Mama Grizzly” moniker.
Ayotte enjoyed spending time with Palin, who played an important role in her 2010 campaign. When she was struggling to swat off Ovide Lamontagne, a tea-party favorite, in the run-up to the September primary, Palin stepped in and endorsed her.
“She was very down to earth,” Ayotte says. “We talked a lot about our families.” Alaska was another popular topic. “My husband was stationed there while he was in the Air Force. They chatted about hunting and fishing.”
That breakfast drew hordes of national reporters and television crews, all interested in whether Palin would run. Ayotte, for her part, says she is unsure of what Palin will do. But she and her constituents are ready for things to heat up.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.