JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — He is one of the Republican Party's most-prized recruits, a young U.S. Senate candidate with an outsider resume and a populist message designed to appeal equally to farmers, suburban moms and the national GOP's moneyed elite.
But things get complicated when you ask Josh Hawley about President Donald Trump.
Hawley, who launched a Republican Senate bid in Missouri less than a year after being elected state attorney general, won't say whether he considers the Republican president a role model. In an interview with The Associated Press, the 38-year-old Yale Law School graduate also sidestepped questions about Trump's behavior toward women.
"No. 1, I am always my own man," Hawley said.
"I value my independence very highly," he added. "My loyalties as a U.S. senator would be first and foremost to the people of Missouri and their needs."
Hawley's cautious answers underscore a delicate political reality on the ground in Missouri, one that also is challenging other Republican candidates across the country ahead of the midterm elections. Seven months before Election Day, many are still struggling to craft a political playbook to win over Trump's most passionate supporters without repelling everyone else.
Hawley appears to be the GOP's best hope to defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November. Yet even in Missouri, which Trump carried by 18 points less than two years ago, a GOP Senate candidate faces risks by fully embracing the president.
Trump remains popular among voters in Missouri's many small towns and rural communities. But in some of the state's suburbs, home to more college-educated voters and women, Trump's behavior and chaotic leadership style threaten to alienate supporters whom Hawley needs this fall. The stakes are high. The national GOP eyes Missouri as perhaps its best pickup opportunity in the nation.
Hawley was out of town on vacation when Trump railed against McCaskill during his first Missouri appearance last summer. At the time, Hawley's political mentor, former Sen. Jack Danforth, was calling on Republicans to disavow Trump. During a subsequent Trump visit in March, Hawley and Trump appeared together publicly only briefly on an airport tarmac outside Air Force One before attending a closed-door fundraising event.
And while Hawley tiptoed around questions about Trump's behavior, he told the AP that he was "delighted to have the president's support."
"The president endorsed me back in November," Hawley said. "He's been here obviously a couple of times now. We'll hope he'll come back."
Hawley's situation is made even more awkward by the fact that several of his senior political aides have worked for outspoken Trump Republican critics.
His campaign manager was a longtime communications chief for former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who attacked Trump as "a narcissist" and an "egomaniac" during the 2016 primary campaign. Another Hawley aide served as communications director for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who previously called Trump "a phony" and "a fraud."
A campaign spokesman noted that the staffers also worked on Hawley's attorney general race in 2016.
The candidate's allies recommend that he focus more on Trump's policies — particularly on taxes, government regulation and his Supreme Court picks — than on his behavior. Trump has been accused of having multiple extramarital affairs. His erratic leadership style and undisciplined use of social media have also drawn criticism from within his own party.
"They don't have to run on Trump himself. They have to run on the Trump issues because those are the issues that Americans and Missourians believe in," said former Missouri GOP chairman Ed Martin, a major Trump supporter.
That's easier said than done, according to GOP pollster Chris Wilson, who is working for Republican candidates in Missouri and across the country.
"Republicans have got to do a good job of explaining what it is they've accomplished," Wilson said. "It's not very often that elections are about issues, but this is a time when they have to be."
Wilson said the distinction matters most in suburban Kansas City and St. Louis, particularly among women who might support Trump's policies but are turned off by his use of Twitter, his unpredictable demeanor and "comments and actions that they see as beneath the president."
Hawley's cautious approach, however, has infuriated some local Trump supporters who view Hawley as an establishment candidate more likely to align with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell than with the president's agenda.
Mark Anthony Jones, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party in Kansas City and its suburbs, said that's why he plans to vote for "anyone but Hawley" in the August primary.
"I don't know that Josh Hawley supports any of Trump's 'America First' strategy. He doesn't say a word about that," Jones said. "He only just scratches the surface in even mentioning Trump."
Ironically, Trump presents challenges for his rival, too.
McCaskill will struggle to win if she can't peel away some of Trump's support. The two-term Democratic senator has spent much of the past year speaking directly to small-town voters in town hall meetings, where she tends to focus on areas of agreement with the president and is cautious in how she explains her votes against Trump's tax bill and his Supreme Court pick.
"How does Claire navigate the fact that Missourians support the president?" Hawley strategist Brad Todd asked. "There are a lot more enthusiastic backers of the president in Missouri than virtually any other state."
Peoples reported from New York.