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GOP In Bind Over Scandal-Plagued Ensign's Reelection Prospects

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Weighed down by ethical controversy and marital scandal, Sen. John Ensign has gone from GOP rising star to pariah. Once tasked with getting more Republicans elected to the Senate, he now is struggling to find members of his own party who are willing to support his own efforts to stay in office.

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to provide a vote of confidence for his Republican colleague, who has been accused of improperly using his office to advance the career of a former aide whose wife was Ensign's mistress. And as a Democratic source pointed out, it now seems that the same organization that Ensign once headed - the National Republican Senatorial Committee - is also distancing itself from the scandal-plagued pol.

The chairman of the campaign committee, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) dodged a question about whether Ensign should resign on Tuesday, saying that it wasn't "proper" to comment on a matter being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. Back in July, when the story initially broke, Cornyn insisted that discussion of resignation wasn't "called for."

"I leave that situation up to him," he said, before adding: "I get a sense that the public is less judgmental than perhaps they have been in the past."

Asked about the apparent change in Cornyn's support for Ensign -- or, at the very least, his willingness to address the matter -- an official at the NRSC said the inquiry seemed like a "transparent effort" by Democrats to distract attention from more serious issues. Pressed whether the NRSC would state its support for Ensign's reelection bid in 2012, Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the committee replied that the date of the election was too far off to comment.

"Senator Cornyn is Chairman of the NRSC for the 2010 election cycle and that's where his focus is," Walsh said over email. "With all due respect, it's a bit ridiculous to even be thinking about an election that is over three years away. Senator Cornyn has said that this issue will be decided by the Ethics Committee as it should be but we're certainly not thinking about an election that's over three years away. Again, raising that issue is just a transparent effort by the Democrats to distract from the problems facing their party today."

The elections of 2012 are, indeed not an immediate concern. But they're certainly not entirely off the radar of the NRSC or, for that matter, its Democratic counterpart. According to recent reports, the Republican campaign committee is already targeting Democratic senators for that election cycle, including Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. So why the reluctance to discuss Ensign's re-election prospects?

"There's a big difference between targeting current Democrat Senators - and not just those up for re-election next year - and working to inform their constituents about their voting record today, versus thinking about who our own candidates might be on the ballot three years from now," Walsh replied. "That's apples and oranges."

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