By Geoff Earle - 07/29/05 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is waging a remarkably laid-back bid for leadership. Recently, he even offered high praise for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), his newest political rival.
Cornyn surprised many fellow Republicans by deciding to run against Ensign for vice chairman of the Republican Conference, the party’s fifth-ranking leadership post. But Ensign, in an interview, didn’t seem the slightest bit put off, calling Cornyn a “great friend” with many political attributes.
“I think he’d be a great member of leadership,” Ensign said.
He said Cornyn told him as a courtesy that he was planning to jump into the race for vice chairman before going public with the news.
“I told him: ‘Go for it,’” Ensign said. “Even if he beats me, he’s a great guy.”
Ensign, who is well-liked within the conference, said that he has spoken to almost every Senate Republican to seek their support and that he plans to keep campaigning for the leadership post. But his warm praise for his colleague signaled that Ensign might not be willing to engage in some of the tough politicking that has dominated other recent leadership battles.
“Sometimes people have hard feelings about leadership races and stuff,” Ensign said, adding that he is not one of those people. He noted that he and Cornyn share a similar political philosophy.
“Obviously, I’ll try to win,” he added. “But it’s kind of like two good friends battling.”
He then compared the race to a friendly athletic competition.
Ensign got a head start on the race and has already secured several pledges of support within the conference.
“I feel pretty good about things,” he said. “I feel pretty good about our level of commitment.”
Ensign’s nonchalance should not be viewed as a sign of overconfidence. He said he is keenly aware that many leadership races often come down to the wire.
“In this business, you never know,” he said.
Elected in 2000, Ensign has served in the Senate just two years longer than Cornyn. A former veterinarian and an avid runner, Ensign has an easygoing demeanor and anchorman good looks that some colleagues believe would help him communicate the party’s message on television.
Of those scheduled to move up the GOP leadership ladder when Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) retires, as planned in 2006, some specialize in substance more than style.
For instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Frist’s likely successor, is considered an adept floor strategist whose skills do not necessarily translate to the on-air demands of television and radio.
Likewise, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who is running unopposed for conference chairman, excels in policy debates more than press conferences. Republicans often employ Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the likely Policy Committee chairwoman, before the TV cameras, but she carefully controls her interactions with the press.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the GOP conference chairman who currently specializes in communicating the GOP message, will most likely run unopposed for whip if he wins his tough race for reelection.
Traditionally, the whip spends more time in face-to-face meetings with fellow Republicans than working the Sunday talk-show circuit, so Santorum’s absence on the airwaves would create a communications vacuum that the vice chairman would likely fill.
Both Ensign and Cornyn could step into that role; both are comfortable speaking off the cuff in a variety of settings.
In just the past week, Cornyn, a former Texas state attorney general and state Supreme Court judge, has become an outspoken proponent on the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But so far GOP lawmakers are keeping their cards close to the vest.
Hutchison, who met with Kyl and Ensign shortly before all three announced they would run for various leadership posts, will not say whom she is supporting for vice chairman.
“Everything we do is between senators,” she said. “I’ll never talk about that anyway, period.”
Walking from the Capitol to his office in the Russell Building on a blisteringly hot day recently, an upbeat Ensign seemed content to leave his political fate to others.
“If people think that I can do the job and want to put me in, great,” he said. “Hey, have a great day.”