10/03/2016 17:26 EDT | Updated 10/04/2017 01:12 EDT

Trump looms large in New Hampshire Senate debate

HENNIKER, N.H. — New Hampshire Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte was forced to defend her support for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump during her debate Monday night with challenger Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, at one point saying she would tell a child to aspire to be like the New York real estate mogul.

In one of the closest Senate races in the country, Hassan has worked to tie Ayotte to Trump, who is trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state. Ayotte, who has tried to distance herself from Trump by playing up her moderate positions, has said she wouldn't endorse him but would vote for him.

She reaffirmed that position Monday night.

But Ayotte seemed to be caught off guard when asked by one of the moderators whether she saw Trump as a role model whom she would tell a child to aspire to. At first, she sidestepped the question by saying she would tell a child to aspire to be the best person they can be and seek to run for the presidency. When she was asked again, she said she believed Trump "can serve for president" and "so absolutely I would do that."

Another moderator then pressed Ayotte to explain why she wouldn't endorse Trump if she felt that way.

"I've had some disagreements with him. I've been quite clear about those disagreements," she said without providing specifics.

Hassan pounced on Ayotte's answer, saying this was just another example of the senator "trying to distance herself from Donald Trump."

"At the end of the day, she is still saying she is going to vote to put Donald trump in the situation room with access to the nuclear code," Hassan said. "She is going to vote to make him the leader of our country and someone who our children will be exposed as the president of the United States."

Trump loomed large in Monday night's debate following revelations over the weekend reported by The New York Times that he may not have paid income taxes after a more than $900 million loss in 1995. Trump has refused to release his tax returns.