Ensign not worried about Heller challenge

RENO -- Sen. John Ensign says he is intent on seeking re-election in 2012 and doesn't worry about facing a challenge from within his party from Rep. Dean Heller.

After speaking to a business group Wednesday in Reno, Ensign acknowledged he faces a "very, very difficult" campaign because of his affair with a former campaign aide.

But the Nevada Republican said he is putting together a campaign team and fundraisers and isn't concerned about who will run for his seat.

"I don't worry about any of that stuff," Ensign said of Heller's interest in the race. "All that will take care of itself. I just have to worry about doing my job.

"There's no question this is going to be very, very difficult. I'm well aware of that. I have a lot of work to do with the people of the state of Nevada, and I plan on doing that work to try to earn their trust back."

Heller, who spoke to the same group Wednesday, said afterward that he still is considering challenging Ensign but has not set a deadline for reaching a decision.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it," Heller said, adding he has received encouragement to run from Republican leaders outside Washington.

Last April, Heller stopped short of calling for Ensign's resignation, but he said Ensign was a "wounded" senator whose ethical woes were dragging him down.

Asked Wednesday whether he thinks Ensign should seek a third term, Heller replied, "That's a decision he has to make. If he wants to run, he has a right to run."

The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating allegations arising from Ensign's extramarital affair with former aide Cynthia Hampton.

In December, Ensign's attorneys announced the Justice Department is no longer targeting Ensign in a criminal investigation arising from the affair.

"I'm telling you, you guys are the ones talking about this stuff," Ensign told reporters on Wednesday. "When I'm out there, people don't talk to me about it."

Asked whether that means he has put the affair behind him with voters, Ensign replied, "I don't ever want to put the lessons that I've learned behind me. There have been some very valuable lessons. Humility is good for one's soul. And I certainly got a good, good dose of humility through this whole thing."

Ensign shrugged off a recent poll cited by Republican National Committeeman Robert List of Nevada as a cause for concern. The Public Policy Polling survey showed Ensign trailing Heller by 18 percentage points and with a 35 percent approval rating.

List last week told the Nevada television show "To the Point" that Ensign should begin to seriously consider forgoing a re-election bid if his poll numbers don't soon improve.

"When you saw Harry Reid ahead of his election, what kind of numbers did he have? Against every Republican he was down double digits," Ensign said. "The last time I checked he won by over 5 percentage points (in November).

"So polls don't know these kinds of things. ... I don't comment on polls, because there are polls all over the place."

Ensign said he is hoping to be cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee investigation. In November, the Federal Election Commission dismissed a complaint against him over the $96,000 payment made to Cynthia Hampton and her family.