By Jeremy Herb and Carlo Munoz - 07/03/12 09:00 AM EDT
Freshman Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has turned the threat of $500 billion in defense cuts into her signature political issue, raising her Senate profile and sparking speculation that she could become Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Her focus on defense has helped her carve out a unique space among the vice presidential contenders; she’s frequently mentioned as a sleeper pick behind a top tier that includes her colleagues Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
She has made the rounds at D.C. think tanks, joined press conferences with the biggest names in the Senate and touted the issue repeatedly back in New Hampshire, a swing state in the upcoming election.
And her work has given her a platform alongside big-name defense hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, has praised her efforts, even throwing in some flattery on the Senate floor on Friday.
“Our most eloquent member has arrived on the floor,” McCain said of Ayotte. “Not to mention other attributes that we are lacking in.”
Ayotte’s personal background and growing defense expertise have sparked VP speculation, where observers note she could provide a boost with female voters, already a contentious battleground between Romney and President Obama.
But some strategists argue Ayotte is an unlikely pick because of her relative inexperience and Romney’s focus on the economy. Plus, there’s the potential for comparisons to Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, although several strategists and defense analysts said such a comparison was invalid.
“This is an economic election, and while she is from a battleground state and that’s important, her credentials may not match up with what the campaign really needs, which is a No. 2 who can speak eloquently on the economy,” said one Republican strategist.
“If this was post-9/11, she would be a perfect VP candidate,” the strategist said. “I’m not saying she’s not qualified — she could do a very good job — but her skill set is only part of what’s needed, not all.”
Ayotte has been willing to discuss her interest in the vice presidential job, something that other possible contenders have shied away from.
“The vice president does have a way with words,” Ayotte joked in a May interview with the Boston Herald, where she talked about the VP slot.
She also dismissed the role of gender in Romney’s pick, saying that he will “pick who he thinks is best and he will do that not worried about the gender of the person or what their particular background is, except for when it comes to qualifications.”
Romney openly mentioned Ayotte as one VP possibility last year, and she was an early endorser of the former Massachusetts governor, campaigning with him before the New Hampshire primary. She also joined Romney on his bus tour earlier this month, where he was accompanied by other possible contenders, including Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Defense analysts say that even if Romney does not choose Ayotte, she’s laid the groundwork to take the defense torch among the senior Republican hawks in the Senate.
A former New Hampshire attorney general elected to the Senate in 2010, Ayotte does not have a background in the military herself, but her husband is an Iraq veteran, and the Northeast is known for generating members of Congress with an interest in defense.
Ayotte put her prosecutor’s background to good use last year when she joined McCain and Graham to advocate in favor of indefinite detention in military custody for terror suspects.
She has generated the most interest from her colleagues for her advocacy to fix sequestration, the $500 billion in automatic cuts to both defense and non-defense spending set to take effect in January.
The freshman senator, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has appeared at multiple press conferences with senior members McCain, Graham and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and has been active in making public appearances to talk about it.
Last week, Ayotte did back-to-back events on sequestration at TechAmerica and then the Brookings Institution, hammering away at the devastating effects the cuts would have on American defense priorities.
Speaking to a crowd at the TechAmerica Foundation, Ayotte said the issue of sequestration and its impact on U.S. national-security interests was “smoldering” in the minds of American voters.
“People react to burning fires,” she told the audience, noting the negative impact of sequestration on the U.S. electorate might start burning out of control sooner rather than later.
Later that day, Ayotte again sounded the alarm on the dangers of sequestration, but this time on its impact upon the U.S. economy. She emphasized the potential job losses in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Ayotte has “muscled her way in” with the top GOP defense hawks on sequestration.
“That’s a heavy lift for a member, to do two major outside events on the same subject, same day, and it’s noticeable that she’s so active on the issue,” Eaglen said. “It’s a self-fulfilling cycle: The more she stays active, the more people will turn to her for leadership and advice, both in public and behind the scenes.”
Even if she’s not chosen by Romney, Ayotte’s profile is likely to continue to rise — at the end of the year, sequestration is going to become a marquee issue in the lame-duck fiscal-cliff debate.
“By working on defense sequester before anybody else really had thought about it was a very smart idea, because she’ll be front and center more and more as the issue comes to a head,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist.
Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution who appeared with Ayotte at both events last week, said he didn’t sense she was trying out for the VP job, but rather was establishing herself as a senator who deals with serious issues.
“It’s a tone that I tend to find appealing and politically promising, but it’s not where VP candidates tend to go with their rhetoric when they look to go on the ticket,” he said.