Sunday, August 23, 2009

FERNLEY, Nev. | Two months after a weary-looking Sen. John Ensign hastily confessed to having an extramarital affair with a former campaign aide who was his best friend’s wife, the Nevada Republican set out to reconstruct his image before a forgiving crowd in the Fernley Community Center.

On a hot August afternoon before plates of catered lasagna, he opened a speech with a promise to make up for his “big mistake” by working harder than ever.

Mr. Ensign’s determination to move on and rebuild voter trust after apologizing for the affair was met with mixed reviews during two days of carefully scripted appearances, his first events in the state since the scandal erupted.

Reaction to comments Mr. Ensign made to the Associated Press before the speech - how his indiscretion was different from Bill Clinton’s because the ex-president lied under oath - and his unwillingness to answer lingering questions about his own affair show he has more work to do before he can put the scandal behind him.

Mr. Ensign was welcomed Wednesday with a standing ovation from about 100 people at a sweltering Chamber of Commerce luncheon in the rural agricultural community about 40 miles from Reno and far from the media scrutiny that has dogged him since his June 16 admission.

“We had a distraction go on for the last six or seven weeks in my life. I think it would be inappropriate to start any other way than to say I’m sorry,” Mr. Ensign said.

That was good enough for Peggy Gray, president of the Fernley Republican Women. “There are a lot more important things going on in Congress than that,” she said.

“At least he didn’t go to the Mustang Ranch,” said Jane Lewis, editor of the local political group’s newsletter, referring to one of Nevada’s legal brothels.

During a June visit to Iowa, Mr. Ensign gave a lecture about conservative values and told AP in an interview, “Our party got away from its basic principles.”

Two weeks later, with rumors swirling, he announced at a news conference in Las Vegas that he had carried on the extramarital affair with a staffer for much of last year.

Mr. Ensign, 51, resigned as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee the next day.

The woman, Cindy Hampton, was treasurer for two Ensign-controlled campaign committees. Her husband, Doug, was Mr. Ensign’s administrative assistant in his Washington Senate office, and the families were longtime friends.

A poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in mid-July showed the number of voters with a favorable opinion of Mr. Ensign dropped 22 points to 31 percent after he acknowledged the affair. The former congressman was first elected to the Senate in 2000.

Before his Fernley appearance, Mr. Ensign had spent eight days in a secluded vacation with his family at Lake Tahoe, where he lived for much of his youth and starred on the high school basketball and golf teams.

The host of a conservative radio talk show in Reno has uncharacteristically joined those calling for Ensign’s resignation.

“It may be legally different, but is it different in terms of him representing us and him doing what he should have been doing?” KKOH’s Bill Manders said while devoting most of his two-hour show to the topic in the hours after Mr. Ensign’s Clinton comments.

“Sen. Ensign sat right there in that chair and talked to me about family values and the whole time knew he was doing this,” Mr. Manders told his listeners, who usually are most upset about illegal immigration, taxes and gun rights. “I’m not going to let him move on until he answers some questions.”

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