WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. John Ensign of Nevada will make a notable
pit stop Monday when he flies back to Washington - a one-day excursion in Iowa where he will shake hands, tour businesses and speak to the Republican Party faithful.
The trip's itinerary, as his host put it, "would not be uncommon for a politician dipping their toes" in presidential election waters. Every four years, Iowans get the first chance to voice their preference for president.
Ensign's spokesman, Tory Mazzola, said the visit is about brandishing the senator's credentials as a leader of the Republican Party rather than as a presidential candidate.
"He's very focused on Nevada, but what this trip means is it's a conversation about the future of the Republican Party," Mazzola said.
Ensign now chairs the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 position in GOP leadership, and has assumed a larger role in setting policy and legislative strategy. He had previously chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign committee for the Senate GOP.
The former veterinarian also has taken on an increasingly visible role as Republicans have push backed against the Obama administration.
Ensign recently toured the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay and returned to say there was no reason to close it until the war on terror ends, a position contrary to Obama's wishes.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ensign talked about the party's future and the need for Republicans to build their ranks by reaching out to women and minorities.
"We cannot afford to be a lily white party," Ensign said. "We just can't afford that nationally or in our state."
Ensign said that the effort to attract minorities voters should focus on education and health care. On education, he said he wants to give parents more control over what schools their children can attend, he said. He's a big booster of vouchers that let low-income students attend private schools.
"Education really is the new civil right," Ensign said. "We have maybe the worst or second worst K-through-12 education system in the world. And they've been in control of it. What they've been doing isn't working. We have a great opportunity to go after them, show them we have different solutions to reform our public school system."
"They" refers to Democratic lawmakers, though Republicans had controlled the White House for eight years under former President George W. Bush, and controlled one or both chambers during several
of the congressional sessions dating back to 1994.
Ensign said public schools can't fire bad teachers and have had trouble rewarding the good ones with greater pay, mainly because of bargaining agreements with unions.
Ensign was invited to Iowa by the American Future Fund, a group based in Des Moines that seeks to advance conservative causes. Features on the group's Web site include such entries as "Napolitano's got to go," which calls for the firing of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and a petition that people can sign calling on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to resign.
"We believe Senator Ensign is a rising star within the conservative movement," said Tim Albrecht, the group's communications director. "We though it was a great opportunity to introduce Senator Ensign to Iowa's conservatives."
Ensign plans to focus his speech on promoting personal responsibility and limited government, though his views on farm subsidies, if he broaches that topic, may not go over well with some members of the audience. He's against the subsidies.
Ensign will be speaking in Sioux City, in northwest Iowa, which leans heavily Republican. He will also meet with people at an ice cream parlor in Le Mars, a town surrounded by miles upon miles of corn fields, and tour a plant specializing in breeding prize cattle.
Albrecht said the schedules associated with flying from Las Vegas to Iowa to Washington allowed for Ensign having extra time on the ground. "He had additional time, and he was excited to do other stuff," Albrecht said.