MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes, who spoke publicly about running for the U.S. Senate barely a week after being sworn in for his second term in the House, told a debate audience Monday that his Republican opponent Kelly Ayotte is driven by political ambition.
Ayotte, a former attorney general who's never run for office before, countered that Hodes was attacking her to avoid talking about his record. The two are competing in the Nov. 2 election to replace Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who is not seeking re-election.
Hodes, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2004 before winning the first of his two terms in 2006, repeatedly brought up e-mails Ayotte sent as attorney general in an attempt to portray her as someone who put politics ahead of the public. In one e-mail, Ayotte responded to a friend urging her to run for political office by writing that she had decided to pursue the death penalty in the case of a Manchester police officer shot in the line of duty.
Hodes, who said he was considering running for Senate as early as Jan. 14, 2009, and officially announced his campaign a month later, said that when he worked in the attorney general's office in the late 1970s and early 80s, politics stopped at the door. But for Ayotte, he said, "It was always on her mind."
"We cannot let personal political ambition rule the day when it comes time to serving the people of this state," Hodes said. "That's really, really, critical, and it's a real difference in this election between Ms. Ayotte and me."
Ayotte said she was proud of the tough decisions she made as attorney general and she criticized Hodes for his work as an elected official.
"He's voted for more spending, higher taxes and deficits as far as the eye can see," she said. "For every problem that New Hampshire faces, he thinks there's a Washington solution. He doesn't want to talk about the issues that really matter, and that is the fundamental difference between us. I want lower spending, less government, and fiscal responsibility to create a positive climate for all small businesses."
The two candidates repeatedly returned to the issue of taxes on small businesses even when asked about Social Security, the deficit or other issues.
Ayotte said she supports extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans, while Hodes said he wants to extend the cuts only for the middle class — those families earning less than $250,000 a year.
When Ayotte complained that the national debt has grown from $8 trillion to $13 trillion since Hodes entered Congress, Hodes interrupted her to ask: "I suppose that's a good reason not to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires that would hurt our deficit by $700 billion?"
Ayotte shot back, "You'd like to get $700 billion more so that can be spent in Washington instead of allowing our small businesses right now who need our help with dollars in their pockets to get people to work," she said. "You say you support the middle class, yet you left Congress without even voting on the tax rates for anyone in this country."
The candidates also criticized each other on earmarks, the pet projects members of Congress add to legislation to benefit their home districts. Ayotte said Hodes voted for 9,000 earmarks before deciding to oppose them; Hodes said Ayotte was happy to benefit from them when the money helped the attorney general's office.
The debate, held at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, was sponsored by AARP New Hampshire and the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.