It looked like nothing could stop John Ensign.
Before he revealed almost two weeks ago that he'd had an extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer, Nevada's junior senator was at the top of his game. Consistently popular with home-state voters, he was feeling out a higher national profile and getting good reviews.
Now the rising star has fallen, likely for good.
Analysts say Ensign has a fighting chance at re-election in three years, depending on what else comes to light about his nine-month affair with 46-year-old Cindy Hampton of Las Vegas and his dealings with Hampton and her husband, Doug, 47, who Ensign says was demanding money from him.
But Ensign should no longer entertain hopes of landing on a national Republican ticket, they say. That is the price he must pay.
The scandal has shined a spotlight on the 51-year-old Ensign. He was a GOP golden boy who nonetheless kept his distance from partisan affairs, a man from a privileged background who was largely self-made as a politician.
Over the course of his 15-year career in politics, he demonstrated a quiet, dogged confidence -- a knack for making savvy political moves, without anyone necessarily seeing him coming.
It was mid-1993 when a friend asked Las Vegas Republican political consultant Steve Wark to take a look at a guy from his church who wanted to run for office: a handsome 35-year-old veterinarian named John Ensign.
"He was very much a novice on the whole political scene," Wark recalled. "He was mild-mannered, he was sincere, he had a little of his own money to spend but not a whole lot. I knew he could impress an electorate."
Born in Roseville, Calif., near Sacramento, Ensign's early life was troubled. His father abandoned the family -- mother Sharon and three children, including John -- when he was 4 and did not pay child support. For a time, Ensign's mother made change in a Reno casino for $12 a day while sharing a house with another fatherless family.
"My mother was a single mom, but she wouldn't go on welfare," Ensign told the Review-Journal in a 1995 article on the welfare reform debate then brewing on Capitol Hill. "That's the kind of work ethic she instilled in me."
The same article reported that Ensign's bitterness toward his biological father was such that he would not even utter the man's name.
Ensign's mother remarried Mike Ensign, a casino executive who would rise to chairman and CEO of the Mandalay Resort Group, which would be purchased by MGM Mirage in 2005 for $7.9 billion.
Mike Ensign adopted John and his two siblings. They took his name, and John is said to be close to the private, protective man he regards as his true father.
John Ensign grew up in Northern Nevada before attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then transferring to Oregon State University, from which he received his bachelor's degree in general science. In 1985, he received his veterinary degree from Colorado State University, one of the nation's top veterinary schools.
It was as fellow Colorado State alums that Ensign got to know Dr. Christopher Yach, a younger vet who went into business with him and who still owns the West Flamingo Animal Hospital.
"He was probably ahead of most other vets the day he got out of school," said Yach, who has stayed friends with the senator over the years. "We weren't from the old school. We were cutting edge, wanting to do more."
Ensign's ambition and drive led him to open Las Vegas' first 24-hour animal hospital and to pioneer cancer therapy for pets, both of which were "unheard of at that time" in Southern Nevada, Yach said.
"He is exceptionally hard-working, and he loves to do what he does," Yach said. "I think I'm the luckiest person in the world being a vet. He thought that when he was a vet, and he thinks that now (as a politician). He loves to help. He's a doer."
However, Ensign did not especially love his foray into the family business, those who knew him at the time say. Urged on by his father, he spent more than three years as general manager of two Las Vegas casinos, the Nevada Landing and the Gold Spike. Friends say he yearned to get back to veterinary practice.
Instead, he tried something else: politics.
Often, would-be politicians start small, perhaps volunteering for a political party as a precursor to running for city council or school board or Assembly. Others are handpicked: successful in a different field, they are sought by party officials looking for talent.
John Ensign was neither. He was just a guy who was tired of yelling at his TV set.
"He told me that when he couldn't sleep at night, he would turn on C-SPAN and get more and more incensed," said Sarah Ralston, a Democrat and former TV personality who was press secretary for Ensign's 1994 campaign. "Based on that, he just came to the conclusion that he should run for Congress. He literally came out of left field. People were like, 'Who is this guy?'"
Never mind that the seat Ensign set out to run for was a heavily Democratic district -- with about 35,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered -- represented by a four-term incumbent, then-Rep. James Bilbray.
Ensign was considered a very long shot. But based on his father's connections, Ensign had unusual fundraising prowess for a first-time candidate and outpaced Bilbray in donations.
Ensign also benefited from good timing: Bilbray became embroiled in a scandal over his sponsorship of a Red Rock conservation bill that would have put millions in the pocket of his chief political adviser. Meanwhile, the Republican wave led by soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich was brewing.
Nonetheless, the Friday before the election, a Review-Journal poll put Ensign 17 points behind Bilbray. The paper's pollster said Ensign would be doomed by his association with Gingrich's "Contract With America," which clearly wasn't resonating with Nevada voters.
On Election Night, the early returns had Ensign down by 10. Bilbray went on television with what sounded like a victory announcement, while Ensign began writing a concession speech.
But the margin narrowed and narrowed. When the last block of votes came in from the heavily Republican precincts of Green Valley, Ensign had eked out victory by 1,436 votes.
"I will say this about John: When the (poll) numbers came out, he said he would fight the good fight to the very end," Ralston recalled.
Campaign staff and volunteers were discouraged, but Ensign had them walking neighborhoods all weekend, knocking on doors and asking for votes, as if the race was still close.
FAMILY AT HOME
Ensign's wife, Darlene, moved to Washington with her husband and young child, but eventually moved back to Las Vegas, where she would raise their three children.
Old friends, most of whom would not be quoted by name, say Darlene never wanted to be a political wife and still doesn't. The man she married was a veterinarian and fellow born-again Christian, a former fraternity boy looking to settle down and raise a family in Nevada.
Faith was a big part of their life together. They attended the Meadows Fellowship Foursquare Church. At her urging, he joined the Promise Keepers, the evangelical men's group that focuses on marital fidelity and family values.
"I went to some Promise Keepers conferences at the request of my wife, and it really improved our marriage," Ensign told the Review-Journal in 2000. "She is the biggest reason I continue to go. I haven't been to one in a couple of years, but recently she's encouraged me to go back to one, because she thinks I need a tune-up."
Such "tune-ups" might have been necessary because John Ensign always had what one longtime acquaintance called "fidelity issues." One longtime Nevada Republican activist recalled an episode where he moved out for several months in the 1990s.
Then there was the famous 2002 episode when Ensign dropped out of sight for two weeks, leaving his staff and the public mystified. When he resurfaced, he would say only that he was dealing with a personal matter and would have no further explanation.
Staffers didn't know the specifics, but they knew the Ensigns' marriage was in trouble.
"This has been an ongoing situation in their marriage," said one old friend who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He always had this proclivity, and Darlene is not stupid. I know this has been a battle for Darlene for a long time."
Despite the battles, they stayed together.
"I have never known two people who worked harder on their marriage than those two," Ralston said.
In part, she said, it was their shared faith and their church community that bound them and helped them weather the storms.
Every time there was trouble, friends say, Ensign was able to get back into his wife's good graces, repair the damage, and keep the situation private.
A PUBLIC AFFAIR
Until June 16, it looked like that would be the case with Ensign's nine-month affair with Cindy Hampton, a high school friend of Darlene's.
Cindy and her husband, Doug, had been good friends of the Ensigns, living in the same Summerlin neighborhood and sending their children to the same private school, Faith Lutheran Junior-Senior High School.
In late 2006, Ensign brought both of them onto his payroll, Doug earning more than $10,000 a month as administrative assistant, Cindy working for Ensign's Senate campaign and political action committee.
The affair, both Ensign and the Hamptons have said, began in December 2007; John and Darlene Ensign separated in April 2008. (The senator, when he was in Las Vegas, lived with his parents during the separation, sources said.)
The separation wasn't widely known in political circles. The couple reunited in July 2008, but the affair didn't end until August, months after the Hamptons had abruptly left Ensign's employ in May. Doug Hampton, in a letter to Fox News, said the affair prompted their dismissal.
The Ensigns went to counseling and eventually emerged with their marriage strengthened, Ensign has said. As far as the family and their friends knew, the episode was closed.
"The family has already been through a tough time over this," said Yach, Ensign's friend and former veterinary business partner. "This is news to the public, but not to them. They've already been through their struggle.
"He's a human being. They went through their trouble and decided to stick it out, and they are stronger for it," Yach added. "I think they were doing great before this came out. They are going through another test right now."
As a newly elected congressman, Ensign stood out for his conservative ideology and his political maneuvering.
Aided by his connections in the gaming world, he began lobbying right after the election for a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, something no Republican freshman had landed in 30 years.
Democrats were convinced Ensign would be vulnerable for his association with Gingrich and his right-wing voting record. He made seemingly no attempt to temper his ideological leanings to better match his Democratic district. But he cruised to re-election and soon was gunning for a bigger prize: the U.S. Senate.
In the race against Sen. Harry Reid, Ensign was once again considered a major underdog. It was a tough, hard-fought contest; in the end, Ensign lost by 428 votes.
"He ran a good campaign and conceded gracefully," said University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Eric Herzik. "He could have gone to court and fought it, raised questions about irregularities, but he didn't. He wasn't a sore loser."
In early 1999, Ensign caught another lucky break when then-Sen. Richard Bryan announced he would not run for re-election. The Republican ex-congressman, who had gone back to veterinary work, announced his candidacy immediately.
"He had come out of that (the 1998 race) with a lot of votes, a lot of money, a lot of national resources," said Ed Bernstein, the Las Vegas personal injury attorney who was the Democratic nominee in the 2000 race. "He had a machine all ready to go."
This time, Ensign was the favorite.
Throughout the campaign, Bernstein sought to point out views of Ensign's he saw as extreme. He pointed to comments like Ensign's 1997 remark that "out-of-wedlock births need to be somewhat stigmatized," to absolutist views on abortion, and to the Promise Keepers' emphasis on proper roles for men and women in marriage.
But voters just couldn't be convinced that the "personable, friendly, handsome, photogenic family man" they saw in television ads was a political extremist, Bernstein said. In some of the ads, touting his veterinary background, Ensign wore a white doctor's coat and cuddled a puppy.
"I think people connect with him as a regular guy," said Bernstein, who said he always got along with his opponent on a personal level and bore him no ill will. "I just could not convince people he was a right-winger. There is a real disconnect between him as a man and what his positions are."
That has been Ensign's great talent as a politician, said Wark, the Las Vegas consultant, who also attended church with the Ensigns for many years. Ensign is able to be ideologically driven without seeming like an extreme partisan.
"Most of the time, when we label somebody as being on the far end of the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, often we're really referring to strength of personality," Wark said. "When somebody appeals to moderates, it isn't because they're moderate politically. It's because they have a moderate personality."
A Review-Journal poll prior to Ensign's 2006 re-election found that the 54 percent of Nevadans who said they would vote for him included 20 percent of Democrats, 89 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of independents.
Before the current scandal sent it plummeting, Ensign's favorable percentage in polls was consistently in the mid- to high 50s.
"I hear from my liberal friends all the time, 'I had no idea this guy was so conservative.' That's because he's not standing on a corner banging a drum and screaming," Wark said.
Although Ensign believed deeply and unshakably in reducing government spending, cutting taxes, and less regulation for business, he was never really a Republican Party animal. He leaned on the party for support, but many in the party apparatus felt he didn't use his ample clout to give back to the GOP and help other candidates.
Once, during Ensign's first term in Congress, Wark was driving Ensign home from a Republican event when the congressman complained that political parties had to exist at all. The system would be better off without them, the consultant recalled, Ensign said.
"When he went to the Senate, he became somewhat invisible" back in Nevada, Herzik, the political scientist, recalled. "People said he was lazy and not aggressive, and I was one of them. The joke was that he must have been working on his golf game. Looking back, upon further review, I would say he was biding his time and learning the ropes."
Among the moves Ensign was making in the Senate: He developed a close friendship with Reid, his former foe.
Friends of both men say the bond is genuine, despite the men's political differences. They do not criticize each other publicly, and they work together on Nevada issues. In 2006, Ensign cruised to re-election against a weak opponent, with many Democrats blaming Reid for not recruiting a stronger challenger.
After he was re-elected, Ensign was tapped to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2008 election cycle. The committee's fundraising was disappointing, it failed to recruit strong candidates for several vulnerable Democratic seats, and the GOP minority ended up losing eight seats in the Senate.
Nonetheless, Ensign got a promotion. He was named to head the Republican Policy Committee, the Senate GOP's No. 4 position. In that capacity, he began to appear frequently as the voice of his party on cable news shows and in national political coverage.
"He was doing the classic insider politics positioning: on the Sunday talk shows, talking to key groups, making those connections," Herzik said. "I think he had more ambition than people gave him credit for, myself included. And then he went to Iowa."
On June 1, Ensign gave a much-hyped speech to a conservative group in the state that hosts the first presidential primary contests. He also toured a local business and shook hands with locals at an ice cream parlor.
Was that foray toward a higher national profile what led Doug Hampton to try to expose his former friend? According to Ensign's staff, it was around the time that the Iowa visit was announced that Hampton, through a lawyer, began demanding large amounts of money from the senator.
On June 11, Hampton sent his aggrieved two-page letter to Fox News anchorwoman Megyn Kelly, pleading with her to reveal Ensign's "unethical behavior and immoral choice." The letter noted, "Senator Ensign's responsibility and stature have increased within the US Senate. ... We on the other hand are completely ruined."
According to the version of events he and his staff have sketched, Ensign somehow found out the Hamptons had gone to the media with their story, prompting him to seek to get out ahead of the potentially damaging news.
On June 16, he hastily flew home to Las Vegas in the middle of the Senate work week, holding a news conference at which he announced he'd had an affair, apologized to everyone involved and took no questions.
Since then, Ensign has stepped down from his leadership position and returned to Washington. He has declined to comment further on the scandal; a Washington watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint based on the circumstances surrounding the affair and the Hamptons' employment.
A Review-Journal poll found Ensign's popularity has plunged. His favorable rating with Nevada voters is down 14 points, to 39 percent, from a month ago. But most do not think he should resign.
One Republican Party insider said the state party chairwoman, Sue Lowden, initially wanted to put out a statement of support for Ensign, "but half the board and county chairs refused to sign the letter."
The party has put out no official statement on Ensign, and insiders say the rank and file are deeply divided. Ensign had their respect for his conservative bona fides, but he never earned their good will.
Many also see him as a hypocrite for talking a big game about marriage and family values while failing to live up to what he demanded of others.
"If John Ensign is out there on his own now, it's because that's the way he's always preferred it," Wark said.
While Ensign tries to keep a low profile, observers are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Hamptons have yet to speak publicly, but have said through their lawyer that they plan to.
The web of connections and the employment angle mean the story is more complicated than one of simple adultery.
"This whole thing has legs on it," Wark said, "whether he likes it or not."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.