STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, we have a glimpse of a U.S. Senate race. It's one of the contests that will decide control of the Senate this fall. And in this contest in New Hampshire, both candidates are trying the same tactic. Each is linking her rival to a presidential candidate with liabilities. It is a common story for Republicans to have an awkward relationship with Donald Trump. In New Hampshire, the Democrat has faced scrutiny for how she talks about Hillary Clinton. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: On the edge of the White Mountains, if you're walking around a town called Littleton and suddenly seized by an uncontrollable urge to play music, sit yourself down at one of the sidewalk pianos on Main Street. That's where Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte stumbled on Chris Hall.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY AYOTTE: That was fantastic.
CHRIS HALL: Oh, hey.
AYOTTE: Yeah, nice to meet you. That was...
HALL: Nice to meet you.
AYOTTE: That was amazing. Like...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's your last name, Chris?
CHANG: Ayotte's taking a quick break from meeting with small business owners in town. But even during this momentary distraction, Hall asks the question she cannot escape.
HALL: So you're a Republican, I guess.
AYOTTE: I'm a Republican.
HALL: Are you - are you on the Trump bandwagon, or...
AYOTTE: Listen, I think...
HALL: It's a tough call, huh?
AYOTTE: ...This is a year where, as I look at the choices, I'm going to be voting for him, but I haven't endorsed him because I've had some very public disagreements with him on some of the things that he's said.
CHANG: It's a position Ayotte has had to repeat over and over again. She will not endorse Donald Trump, but she will vote for him. Her opponent, Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, has mocked this response, saying Ayotte's trying to have it both ways. But Ayotte contends she's showing her independence from Trump. She's criticized him for his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S., his remarks about women and his attacks on the family of a slain Muslim-American soldier. And yet, Ayotte is flipping the script on Hassan.
AYOTTE: When has Governor Hassan ever stood up to Hillary Clinton?
CHANG: New Hampshire is a state where about 40 percent of voters call themselves independent. And both candidates are trying to exploit the unpopularity of the other's presidential nominee. So while Hassan is knocking Ayotte for splitting the difference between supporting and endorsing Trump, Republicans keep referring to this CNN interview last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think that she's honest and trustworthy?
MAGGIE HASSAN: I support Hillary Clinton for the presidency because her experience and her record demonstrate that she's qualified to hold the job.
CHANG: Hassan was asked three times if Clinton was trustworthy, and she never said yes. She has since clarified that she does think Clinton is honest, but it's still awkward.
Do you think Clinton has a perception problem here among New Hampshire voters about her trustworthiness?
HASSAN: Well what I focus on is, again, why I think she's the best person to be president of the United States. She has the qualifications, the experience.
CHANG: Clinton is leading Trump by an average of nine points in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Ayotte and Hassan are virtually tied, which means Ayotte is picking up voters who feel queasy about Trump. And right-leaning Rockingham County on the seacoast might be where that's happening. Scott Harvey can't bring himself to vote for Trump at the moment, but no such hesitation for Ayotte.
SCOTT HARVEY: The Republican Party is more in line with my views, and I think Ayotte is more in line with the Republican Party than Trump is. Trump's more of a wild card.
CHANG: But Mary Dempsey, who's an independent sitting down the beach from Harvey, won't be voting for Ayotte precisely because the senator's voting for Trump.
MARY DEMPSEY: I just feel as though, if you can stand behind him, if you can say I am going to make an effort to get him elected, then I question what your values are.
CHANG: And Dempsey says, for her, making a show of standing up to Trump once in a while doesn't redeem Ayotte. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.