Ensign endorses McCain as senator's momentum builds

WASHINGTON -- With Sen. John McCain all but having clinched the Republican nomination for president, Sen. John Ensign on Friday said he will back the Arizona senator.

Ensign's endorsement is another sign of Republican leaders coalescing around the candidate they now see as a sure thing, even though rival Mike Huckabee has refused to throw in the towel.

McCain "has the conservative record of fiscal discipline and strong national defense of which Republicans can be proud," Ensign said.

Ensign could not be reached late Friday after his endorsement was announced in a statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans where the Nevadan is chairman.

A poll released Thursday by Rasmussen Reports shows McCain with a nine-point lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton in Nevada, 49 percent to 40 percent, but losing the state when matched against Sen. Barack Obama, 50 percent to 38 percent.

On an issue of Nevada interest, McCain has supported construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, contrary to the position of Ensign and other top Republicans in the state.

Republican Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller have displayed varying levels of enthusiasm about McCain, who has been viewed with suspicion among conservatives for his positions on illegal immigration, tax cuts and campaign financing.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, also has not announced an endorsement.

McCain also has supported banning college football and basketball betting at Nevada sports books, although he has said he won't pursue action unless another college gambling scandal occurs. Nevada casinos no longer worry about McCain and sports betting, the industry's top Washington lobbyist, Frank Fahrenkopf, said this week.

Stephens Washington Bureau writer Sara Spivey contributed to this report.