LAS VEGAS AND WASHINGTON — For a rebuilding Republican Party that's struggled to counter a charismatic president, the made-for-TV visage of Sen. John Ensign of Nevada held great promise.
Bronze-skinned and silver-haired, he was promoted to a top Senate GOP leadership position. He made the cable news rounds, advocating fiscal discipline. A recent trip to Iowa, whose voters have launched many a presidency, led to speculation that he had designs on the White House.
This week, his national ambitions fizzled and his beleaguered party was nursing yet another headache.
A day after apologizing for an extramarital affair with a former campaign staff member, Ensign resigned Wednesday from his chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee. Questions are swirling about what provoked his abrupt disclosure of a relationship that reportedly lasted from December 2007 to August 2008.
"I don't know who told him he could be president, but that's off the table," said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
If little else is revealed, Ensign will probably remain popular with Nevada's forgiving voters, who typically prize shrinking government and lowering taxes above all else. In 2006, they elected Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, who was accused of trying to assault a cocktail waitress but painted his opponent as a big spender.
For the Republican Party, however, Ensign's admission is the equivalent of punching a reeling boxer in the gut. He was supposed to help lead the GOP back to viability after a string of sex and corruption scandals, a devastating 2008 election and the recent defection of moderate Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democrats.
"The announcement certainly tarnishes Sen. Ensign's image on the national stage . . . because infidelity almost inevitably implies a pattern of deception," said an editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is usually sympathetic to Nevada's junior senator.
"If he's going to be a man who walks the walk, he should resign," said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist and blogger in Las Vegas.
More so in Washington than to Nevadans, Ensign had burnished his social conservative credentials.
A veterinarian and the adopted son of a casino mogul, he was involved with the Christian ministry Promise Keepers and has publicly railed against same-sex marriage. He called for President Clinton's resignation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and chastised Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who pleaded guilty in connection with a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting.
"In politics, there's nothing worse than giving people a reason to call you a hypocrite," said Matt Mackowiak, a former Senate GOP staffer who's now a political consultant.
But on a broader scale, some strategists said the party could push through the tawdry headlines because voters were more concerned with the flailing economy and healthcare reform than a Nevada senator's dalliances.
Eric Ueland, a former Senate Republican leadership aide, said Ensign's personal life "will have little bearing on the Senate GOP's political fortunes, which have a lot more to do with defining what they believe in."
On Tuesday, with little advance notice, Ensign flew from Washington to Las Vegas for a hastily arranged news conference, in which he called the affair "the worst thing I have ever done in my life."
Before the affair, he had been friends with his mistress and her husband. "That closeness put me into situations during a very difficult time in my marriage, which led to my inappropriate behavior," he said, adding that he and his wife, Darlene, had reconciled.
Yet the fallout is just beginning. Ensign, a champion of fiscal conservatism, is facing questions about payments to Cynthia Hampton, with whom he had the affair, and her husband, Doug.
Cynthia Hampton worked for his campaign and at his Battle Born Political Action Committee, where she earned $700 per two-week pay period for much of 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In February 2008, that doubled to almost $1,400.
Doug Hampton, an administrative assistant in Ensign's office, earned more than $144,000 in fiscal year 2007 and about $101,000 the next fiscal year, records show. Both Hamptons stopped working for the senator by May of that year.
Meanwhile, their 19-year-old-son, Brandon, was paid $5,400 by the National Republican Senatorial Committee between March 2008 and August 2008. The payments, for "research policy consulting," ended the same month as the affair reportedly did, federal election records show.
The senatorial committee referred questions to Ensign staff members, who did not return calls.
The Hamptons' Las Vegas attorney, Daniel Albregts, said that the couple would eventually share their version of events.