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His conservative reputation wounded by the true-life soap opera of an extramarital affair and a betrayed best friend, Nevada Sen. John Ensign is trying to revive his political career and emerge victorious in a contest few think he can win.
Ensign, who faces ethics charges stemming from an affair with a former employee married to his longtime friend, has been touring Nevada asking constituents for their forgiveness and campaign contributions as he prepares to run for a third term.
Once elected with a comfortable 55 percent of the vote, Ensign would typically face no real partisan opposition if not for the sex scandal clouding his prospects. Instead, he has yet to receive his party’s pardon, and a gaggle of popular state leaders are now mulling a run against him, including U.S. representatives from both sides of the aisle.
The ugly love affair remains a political body blow for Ensign, who once was heralded as a potential presidential contender.
“It becomes something about trust and loyalty,” said Jennifer Duffy, a “Cook Political Report” senior analyst who has branded Ensign the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent. “It wasn’t like some one-night stand with a prostitute. It was the wife of his best friend.”
Ensign has nevertheless adopted a winsome front in public. When not in Congress, he has been zipping across Nevada since as least October, meeting with restaurateurs on the Las Vegas Strip, dishing with business owners in rural northern Nevada and touring a technology center in Reno, among other events that mostly focused on the Silver State‘s deflated economy.
He seems eager to once again woo voters with his conservative principles. In recent weeks, he has pummeled President Barack Obama‘s health care law and rallied for a balanced federal budget, another stock Republican target.
Voters, as Ensign tells it, will prove more loyal than he was.
“It’s very encouraging is the best way I can say it, not only here in DC but back in Nevada,” Ensign told reporters in Washington recently after meeting with a group of financial backers. “They’re sticking with me.”
Among Ensign’s potential primary rivals are former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle and Rep. Dean Heller, a northern Nevada Republican with blonde hair and equally sunny prospects. A Public Policy Polling survey last month had Heller trumping Ensign by 14 points. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn has repeatedly refused to vouch for Ensign’s re-election campaign.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas has been waging a stealth campaign for months that could be directed toward a Senate bid. Other potential general election opponents include Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, both strong contenders.
In Nevada’s Republican-rich northern enclaves, voters are opaque about Ensign’s future.
“He’s been a fine senator,” said Michele Beard, of the Washoe County Republican Party. “But he’s made some really stupid personal decisions.”
Only a few years ago, it was unimaginable that Ensign, 52, would be threatened with political exile as a result of by his own bedroom trysts.
With his easy smile and unbuttoned elegance, Ensign was a polished foil to the Silver State’s other senator, Harry Reid.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1994, the former veterinarian preached family values, Christian fellowship and fiscal responsibility. He quickly blossomed from a little-known nice suit to the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee after he was elected to the Senate in 2000. A 2009 trip to Iowa sparked speculation about a future presidential bid.
Then came the shocking fall. During a brief 2009 news conference, Ensign revealed he had engaged in a nine-month affair with a staffer. Cindy Hampton‘s husband also worked for Ensign and was a good friend from Nevada.
“If there was ever anything that I could take back in my life, this would be it,” Ensign said at the time. “I violated the vows of my marriage.”
Amid the scandal, Ensign’s parents provided the Hamptons with $96,000 that they described as a gift and Ensign helped find Doug Hampton a lobbying gig.
The Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission investigated the alleged bribes and then dropped the cases with little explanation. The Senate ethics committee, however, recently named a special counsel to look into the allegations.
Ensign has spent nearly $700,000 in legal fees in recent months, leaving him with barely $300,000 in campaign cash. He hopes to raise $1 million by July.
But for all his bravado, Ensign, too, predicts his journey toward redemption will be rocky.
“Campaigns are always ugly. This one is going to be exceptionally ugly,” he said when questioned in Washington recently. “I’m not under any illusions that this is going to be easy. I know it’s going to be unbelievably hard.”
Associated Press Writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.
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