Monday, June 1, 2009 | 3:34 p.m.
- Ensign's Iowa visit grabbing attention (5-31-2009)
LE MARS, Iowa - Nevada Sen. John Ensign predicted Monday that President Barack Obama will be vulnerable in the next election, but only if "fresh voices and fresh faces" emerge to make the case for core Republican values.
In a one-day visit to Iowa, where precinct caucuses launch the presidential nominating process, Ensign made the case that Republicans have gone astray and that's led to two consecutive electoral disasters.
"Our party got away from its basic principles," Ensign said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The trip marked his first visit to Iowa, and at times it looked like the presidential campaign swings that are such a part of life in the state. He toured a genetic engineering plant and dropped in on an ice cream parlor in downtown Le Mars, where he spoke briefly to about 40 people, took a few questions and ordered a dish of Bunny Tracks ice cream -- vanilla with peanuts, chocolate and peanut butter.
Later Monday he was scheduled to give the latest in a series of lectures sponsored by the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative group.
The senator's visit has prompted speculation that he's considering a run for the White House in 2012, but Ensign said he had a different agenda.
"Let me say very clearly, I'm not running for president," he said. "I'm raising my national profile because I believe we need fresh voices and fresh faces in the Republican Party to attract more people to our party."
Still, he said, "I learned a long time ago that you never say never. I want to be one of those voices."
Ensign is among a group of Republicans finding reasons to be in Iowa. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is heading back to the state this month, as is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal visited the state late last year.
Although he sounded traditional Republican themes in the interview, Ensign called for tolerance.
"We also have to allow each other to disagree," said Ensign. "You have to respect each other differences. I'm pro-life, but part of the same party are people who are pro-choice."
His comments came a day after a Kansas abortion doctor was shot to death, underscoring the passion of the issue. Ensign said it's time for all sides on the issue to be respectful.
"We have to just respectfully disagree on the issue, but not allow it to separate us as a party," said Ensign.
Ensign said Republicans shouldn't shy away from issues like health care and education, but should deal with them based on Republican principles such as limited government.
"We need to get back to basic core principles that moderates and conservatives can agree on," said Ensign. "A lot of conservative Democrats and independents used to like us because we actually stood for something."
While Obama appears formidable in early polling and many Republicans believe his popularity will grow if the economy improves, Ensign said the president will be vulnerable as he seeks a second term.
"He's charismatic and he's a great speaker, but over time you focus on the policies, you focus on the damage the policies are doing to the country," said Ensign. "He may have a little bit of a boost to the economy short term, but it's going to cause some long-term damage to the country."
Ensign, a veterinarian, is in his second Senate term. He represents a state in the mountain West, a region where Democrats have been making gains in recent elections.
On health care, Ensign said he would push incentives for living healthier lifestyles. On education policy, he called for focusing on broadening school choice.
"I always believed that good policy makes good politics, but you have to articulate it in the right way," said Ensign. "Republicans are very good at talking to the head instead of talking to the heart. We need more people to talk to the heart."
After the last election, Ensign became chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, which helps set GOP stands in the Senate. He said he will use that post to make his case that Republicans need to overhaul their message.
"I will be one of those voices," he said.
Ensign's speech in Sioux City is part of a lecture series in which Republicans offer their views on the party's future. Former New York Gov. George Pataki delivered the first lecture in April, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will deliver the next installment in October
"My message is you take those core Republican principles and apply them to the modern-day problems we face," said Ensign.
In addition to tolerating diversity within the party, Ensign said more effort should go toward attracting minority voters, many of whom now favor the Democrats.
"We have not done a good job of attracting minority groups because they don't think we care about them," said Ensign.