Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Nevada senator's Iowa visit fuels White House speculation

SIOUX CITY - U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a conservative Republican from Nevada, said Monday in Sioux City his party can appeal to women and minorities on educational choice.

"This is an issue we can actually take back," Ensign said.

Stirring speculation about a potential presidential run in 2012 the telegenic, silver-haired veterinarian spoke to more than 100 people in attendance for an American Future Fund lecture at the main library in downtown Sioux City. Earlier in the day Ensign toured the Blue Bunny ice cream plant in Le Mars and Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center.

Before he entered politics, getting elected to Congress in 1994, Ensign opened the first 24-hour animal hospital in Las Vegas.

"We need new idea leaders, new conservatives, that come out with brand-new ideas, new solutions for the challenges America faces," said Tim Albrecht, communications director for American Future Fund, a conservative, free-market political advocacy organization. "Senator Ensign is definitely an ideas guy and that's what conservatives are thirsty for."

The chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, a top position in his party's leadership structure, Ensign is not a declared for the presidency. But his visit to northwest Iowa drew CNN and Fox News cameras - as well as early vetting from Republicans eager for an alternative to President Barack Obama.

"We need as a party new ideas," said State Rep. Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City. "That's the Republicans' way back to the majority. It's not just saying 'We're Republicans. It's 'We're Republicans with ideas on energy, with ideas on health care, that are reaching out to younger voters, to minority voters.'"

Rants, a possible gubernatorial candidate who had dinner with Ensign Monday night, said the Nevadan is doing all the right things to position himself as a national voice for the party.

Ensign touched on many conventional GOP themes, and strongly criticized Obama, but didn't do so in harsh or shrill terms, an approach not lost on Rants.

"You can be just as conservative as anybody else out there, but you need to deliver that message in a non-threatening way," Rants said. "It doesn't change your values. It changes in how you deliver it to people."

Ensign drew some his most sustained applause at the event, peopled by a decidedly conservative crowd, with his call for changes to the American educational system.

"I think more choice in education will lead to better schools," Ensign said, making the case for vouchers and other programs aimed at creating private school options for more young people in the K-12 range.

Ensign said bad teachers shouldn't be able to hide behind strong unions.

And he sees educational choice as the "new civil right." Too many families are mired in underachieving school districts, he said.

"We can take that issue away from the Democrats," Ensign said.

Ensign joked that his political orientation was as a Democrat - one who at age 18 voted for President Jimmy Carter. But Ensign said he changed his political allegiances quickly.

"Once you learn to meet your own payroll you certainly understand why limited government is a good idea," Ensign said.

Ensign said Obama's stimulus plan, bailouts of the auto industry and budget plans, amount to a modern-day New Deal.

"I don't think we (the federal government) should be owning auto companies," Ensign said.

Of Obama's budget Ensign said: "That was the scariest thing I've ever seen come to Washington, D.C."

Ensign acknowledged that "there's a crisis going on in the United States" with health care.

But he said the Democrats under Obama are steering the nation toward a Canadian or European model of health care in which the Republican senator thinks bureaucrats will be positioned between doctors and patients.

On the energy front, Ensign favors federal support for transitioning biofuels and other renewables into viability but he argues that the nation needs more clean coal and nuclear power in the mix.

Albrecht said Ensign's remarks resonated with the audience in Sioux City.

"It was like a sea of bobble heads because there was a lot of nodding going on," Albrecht said.

Added Albrecht, "Conservatism, despite reports to the contrary, is alive and well. We saw it tonight in Sioux City."

This story first appeared in The Carroll Daily Times Herald.

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