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November 1, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Ensign’s Iowa visit grabbing attention

Many see one-day trip as signal he’s interested in a White House run

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Sam Morris

Republican Sen. John Ensign, shown attending a luncheon hosted by the Asian American Chamber of Commerce Friday in Las Vegas, says his immediate goal is to be one of many spokesmen for his party. But he plans to go to Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential nominating caucuses, this week.

If Sen. John Ensign and his staff seem a little grumpy this week, be kind. They’re dieting.

The office is entering Week Three of a self-imposed health regimen, part of a practice-what-you-preach school of policymaking as Congress turns its attention to overhauling the nation’s health care system.

They’re taking stairs instead of elevators, imposing fines for raiding the office candy bowl and measuring body fat.

That said, Ensign will need to make room for ice cream while in Iowa this week, because sometimes a scoop of politics trumps health.

Ensign’s trip to Iowa on Monday continues to stoke speculation that the rising conservative leader is testing for a presidential run in 2012.

Ensign will speak before a conservative organization in Republican-friendly Sioux City, and make a few other stops. He admits he has thought about being president — what politician hasn’t? — he recently suggested to an interviewer.

Republicans are desperately in search of new leaders as they work to rebuild the party. Ensign offers conservative credentials and a TV-ready fresh face. He has been a regular presence this year on the political news shows.

Still, even Ensign is a little taken aback by the political buzz the trip has generated.

“When I agreed to this, I did not expect this,” said Ensign, heading back to his office after a Senate vote this month. “I did not expect national attention.”

No one goes to Iowa by accident, conventional wisdom says. Because the state historically holds the first presidential caucuses, it sets an electoral tone. Barack Obama won Iowa, as have many modern presidents before him.

The group that invited him, the American Future Fund, arranged the itinerary for Ensign’s one-day stay. He is scheduled to visit a bioengineering firm, then stop off at an ice cream shop in Le Mars (“Ice Cream Capital of the World”) for a meet-and-greet with local residents.

This is starting to feel like a pre-campaign swing. You can imagine the news footage of Ensign shaking hands with folks at the Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor.

Ensign has not swatted back the presidential chatter, nor has he promoted it. His surprise over the buzz would seem unbelievable if it didn’t come with such apparent sincerity.

So what does the two-term senator, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee in the Senate and the fourth ranking in his party’s Senate leadership, want to do with his career in Washington?

“Right now it’s just being one of many spokesmen,” Ensign said. “That really is the focus.”

What about moving up the party ranks in the Senate, as his fellow Nevadan, Sen. Harry Reid, has done, to leader?

“I have zero ambition to be majority leader,” Ensign said.

It makes sense that Ensign would shun the party leader role. In many ways, majority (or minority) leader is a thankless job that requires the patience to corral politically diverse senators and the tactical skill to keep the floor schedule moving.

“You’ve got to please the moderates in your conference. You’ve got to please the very conservative people,” Ensign said. “It’s a very, very difficult job.”

Republicans are at a crossroads as they consider attracting a wider diversity of voters or catering to their conservative base. The emergent party may determine whether a senator from a state that allows gambling and some legalized prostitution could ever make it to the White House.

Iowans may offer a clue.

Then there is the ice cream issue. Presidential contenders have eaten fried Twinkies, downed whiskey shots. Can Ensign really go to the ice cream capital of the world and tell potential voters he’s avoiding desserts?

“You get one serving a week,” Ensign said. “It’s going to be my one serving.”

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