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Searching for Benghazi answers, Ayotte rises to starring GOP role

Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. Kelly Ayotte debate whether GOP nominee Mitt Romney's explanation sufficiently explained his welfare remarks.

Updated 4:02pm ET Finishing just her second year in the Senate, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte has quickly ascended to the top tier of Republican national security advocates and GOP message-mongers.

Mike Segar / Reuters

U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., addresses the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Aug. 28, 2012.

Ubiquitous as a surrogate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for much of the past year, Ayotte has now become a steely-eyed adversary of President Barack Obama and his United Nations envoy Susan Rice for their explanation of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. And because of her unique identity in the Senate as a Northeastern conservative Republican woman, Ayotte’s profile is only likely to continue to grow.

The opposition from Ayotte and other Republican senators to the idea of Rice becoming secretary of state may have taken its toll: on Thursday Rice announced she’d asked Obama to withdraw her name from consideration for that post.

At a talk at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday, she continued to press her questioning of the failure to prevent the attack or adequately defend the consulate. 

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., explains why she's not happy with Ambassador Susan Rice and her handling of the Benghazi situation.

“People have questioned (me): Why are you so interested in this issue? I’m very interested because frankly it’s been shocking to me how much you have to drag the information out of the administration,” she said.

“We have to take the lessons from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she added.

She also said that part of her interest in the Benghazi attack is rooted in her experience as a murder prosecutor when she served as deputy attorney general and then as attorney general in New Hampshire.

“I’ve been frankly shocked at how long it took the FBI to get in there,” she said. “It would be shocking to me in the average murder case that the media would be able to retrieve some of the evidence that they recovered” at the Benghazi site.

She also warned that further reductions in defense outlays would be dangerous, telling the AEI audience that no one could argue that “we’re in such a secure place in this country or without threats from around the world that we should be taking a significant peace dividend.”

She cautioned Republicans about “a strain in our party that’s much more libertarian, that is more isolationist” and that “if Ronald Reagan were here looking at that, he would be troubled by it.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte explains whether the criticism of Ambassador Susan Rice is weakening her role as a representative of the United States on the world stage.

Ayotte has repeatedly made the case that Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement spending -- not defense spending -- is driving the deficit and debt problems.

She was asked at the AEI event whether she supports efforts by Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to restrain health care spending in the military’s TRICARE program by requiring military members and military retirees to pay more for their coverage.

“There’s no question that health care is an issue that we have to deal with, not only on the civilian side but on the military side,” she said.

But, she added, it would be “unfair to ask those who have sacrificed the most for us, ‘You go first, OK, guys? We know you go first on the front lines. Don’t touch Social Security, don’t make any changes to Medicare, but here, let’s start (the spending cuts) with TRICARE.’ ”

Ayotte’s husband Joe Daley flew combat missions during the Iraq war and is now retired from the Air National Guard.

Part of Ayotte’s prominence is simple to explain: in a Republican Senate conference that’s largely Southern, Western, and male, Ayotte is a woman from the Northeast. In the New Year, there will be only four female GOP senators: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the just-elected Deb Fischer from Nebraska, and Ayotte. It seems likely she’ll continue playing a highly visible role, perhaps as a candidate for vice president in 2016.

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Ayotte uses her status as mother in her messaging. “When I think about it -- I am the mother of two children -- how could we possibly ask our children to pay back $26 trillion in debt? It is outrageous,” she said during a Senate debate in February.

Despite a 95 out of 100 rating from the American Conservative Union, on occasion Ayotte has voted in opposition to her party’s conservative wing.

Last week, for instance, she was one of eight Republican senators to vote to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Thirty-eight GOP senators, including the party’s leadership, opposed the treaty. But Ayotte sided with Republican centrists such as Collins, Murkowski, and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Were it not for a mere 1,659 votes, Ayotte wouldn’t be in the starring role she now occupies -- that was her one-percentage point margin of victory in the 2010 Senate primary over social conservative  and tea party favorite Ovide Lamontagne.

She then demolished Democrat Paul Hodes in the general election, winning 60 percent of the vote.

Prior to starting her Senate career, Ayotte, 44, was New Hampshire attorney general, originally appointed by Republican Gov. Craig Benson and re-appointed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch. She was known in Washington primarily for being the lawyer who argued and won the 2005 Supreme Court case bearing her name, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, as she defended her state’s parental notification law for abortion.

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Back in her home state, Democrats are dismissive of Ayotte’s notoriety in the nation’s capital. They say they’re looking forward to defeating her when she runs for a second term.

Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party said Wednesday that when Ayotte won in 2010, she “was able to portray herself as a moderate, not a very partisan person, having been re-appointed attorney general by Democratic Gov. John Lynch. She’s not going to have that luxury when she runs (in 2016) because her voting record and her high profile has exposed her to New Hampshire voters as being a Radical Right member of the Senate.”

Buckley criticized her for being the only member of the New Hampshire delegation to vote no on the highway bill last June. Ayotte said after that vote that while “we need to strengthen America’s transportation infrastructure, including worthy projects like widening I-93” in New Hampshire, the bill “was yet another ‘buy now, pay later’ scheme that fails to fundamentally reform how we pay for highway projects” and was based on “accounting gimmicks” and “reckless borrowing.”

Buckley also criticized Ayotte’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act and “certainly her position on social issues; she is way out of the mainstream when it comes to choice (on abortion), when it comes to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues.” And Buckley’s view is that “the Benghazi obsession that she has is certainly not going over well here in New Hampshire.”