Tahoe Summit welcomes Ensign

CARSON CITY -- U.S. Sen. John Ensign, dogged by ethics questions and repercussions within his own party after divulging an affair with a staffer's wife and his parents' $96,000 payout to the woman's family, hopes to find some refuge this week in Lake Tahoe.

The Nevada senator is scheduled to host the annual Tahoe Summit on Thursday, a gathering at Round Hill Pines Beach and Marina near Zephyr Cove that will be the conservative Republican's first public forum since his June 16 revelation about a nine-month extramarital affair with former campaign aide Cindy Hampton.

Ensign spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said the senator's personal problems won't detract from the summit's goal of protecting Lake Tahoe, which straddles the Nevada-California line.

"I don't feel that this will have any implications on the focus of the event," she said.

Political observers in Nevada tend to agree, though the scandal has changed the state's GOP landscape as the party looks to next year's elections.

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., this week said Ensign's affair and diminished stature with the party weighed in his decision not to challenge Sen. Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader, in next year's election. "It gave me pause," Heller said during an interview on "Face to Face with Jon Ralston."

Heller, who had been regarded as Reid's strongest potential challenger, said he had counted on Ensign to stand by his side and "deflect some of the attacks that would have occurred in a very rough and tumble campaign like that."

"All of a sudden that variable was out," he said.

Once regarded as a rising star and a possible presidential candidate, the revelations have damaged Ensign's standing in Nevada and within the party. Ensign resigned as head of the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 job in the GOP's leadership hierarchy, the day after admitting having the affair with Hampton from December 2007 to August 2008.

Hosting the Tahoe Summit, political observers said, provides Ensign a harbor to try to move on.

"I think this is a very safe event for him to kind of come out and take the lead on," said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, said news coverage in Nevada of Ensign's affair isn't "boiling in any shape or form at the moment," so the Tahoe event is a way to try to put the scandal behind him and move on.

The Tahoe Summit has been held every year since 1997, when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore presided over the inaugural event arranged by Reid.

That led to passage by Congress in 2000 of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act.