Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Quick, turn on the TV this morning. Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign is on — again.
And there he was on Inauguration Day, challenging President Barack Obama to a friendly game of hoops. Talks are under way for a two-on-two game at Camp David.
Ensign has steadily been asserting himself on the national stage. He was to appear this morning on CNN’s “State of the Nation,” and over the past two weeks, he has shown up almost daily on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” CNBC, Fox News and local radio in Nevada.
And, as Republican Policy Committee chairman, he will host a hearing in Washington on the economic crisis.
The two-term senator is leveraging his new role as the fourth ranking Republican in the Senate into a higher profile that will come with potential promise and peril.
Senators are famously type-A personalities, climbing over one another, with all due respect, of course, as 100 very driven individuals strive to be noticed. That behavior can be perceived as politically rewarding after last year’s two presidential nominees, Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, both rose from the Senate family.
Ensign has always stood out a bit from the other rank-and-file senators as a younger, good-looking public face for the party. He can deliver the party’s conservative ideals with conviction, post it to YouTube and not put viewers to sleep.
Fresh faces are an even more prized commodity now, as Republicans struggle to rebuild after stark electoral losses.
But Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for the Cook Political Report, can’t help but wonder, “Is there a little effort of rehabilitation going on?”
Ensign narrowly escaped potentially career crippling blame after his party’s brutal defeat in the 2008 elections. He headed the election committee as seven seats switched hands in a virtual landslide. Party members mostly absolved him, conceding it was a bad year for Republicans.
Duffy believes Ensign’s new policy role can help him move on and avoid the fate of his predecessor at the campaign committee. Sen. Elizabeth Dole also presided over serious losses, then lost her own reelection bid in North Carolina last year.
Las Vegas is the land of second starts, so it seems fitting that the senator from a casino family would know the terrain.
In many ways, the timing is ripe for Ensign’s rise. Republicans are without a central figure now that President George W. Bush is out of the White House. How well known are the minority leaders in the House and Senate? (Can you name them?)
With Obama, Ensign has a potentially helpful foil. Ensign, like many lawmakers, has had nothing but positive reviews for Obama’s open style and efforts to reach across the aisle.
Ensign can lunch with Obama as he did last week and invite him to a friendly game of hoops — even as he bashes the president’s economic package with a smile.
In some ways, it’s an easier job than Sen. Harry Reid ever had as a Democratic leader opposing Bush, a president who never invited congressional leaders to cocktails (as Obama did last week) and who put the executive branch above the legislative almost every day.
Yet Ensign might find a caution in Reid’s fate. Reid saw his popularity in Nevada nose dive as he became a more sharply partisan spokesman. Some believe it makes him vulnerable to defeat in 2010.
Ensign routinely enjoys high approval ratings among Nevada’s elected officials, in part because he keeps his partisan edges smooth. Playing opposition to a popular president may not go over well in a state that went for Obama by a wide margin.
Case in point: Ensign is currently the target of radio ads running in Nevada that urge him not to be a “Dittohead,” referring to Rush Limbaugh’s stated hope that Obama fails.
Ensign doesn’t talk much about his own career goals and he has to make sure he doesn’t bruise any fellow senators on his ascent.
But it will be a journey worth watching. Plus, it’s on TV.