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Ensign affair

The Justice Department is no longer targeting Nevada’s junior senator in a criminal investigation arising from his affair with a former campaign aide and has no plans to charge him, attorneys for Republican John Ensign said Wednesday.

The department had been looking into allegations Sen. Ensign conspired with aide Doug Hampton, the husband of the woman with whom Sen. Ensign admitted cheating on his wife, to violate federal lobbying restrictions.

When Mr. Hampton found out about the affair, Sen. Ensign admitted he contacted campaign donors to help line up a lobbying job for Mr. Hampton. Federal criminal law bars former Senate aides from lobbying in the Senate for a year after they leave.

Around the same time, Sen. Ensign’s parents provided the Hamptons with $96,000 they described as a gift.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Election Commission dismissed a complaint against Sen. Ensign over the $96,000 payment. A spokeswoman for the senator said Sen. Ensign hopes the Senate Ethics Committee will soon follow suit.

Politically, these latest developments are good news for Sen. Ensign, who has announced he’ll seek a third term in 2012. But it would be a mistake to believe he’s out of the woods, where Nevada voters are concerned. Not only would the senator obviously face a high-profile Democratic challenger in 2012, there’s little doubt his perception as a “wounded” incumbent will draw numerous challengers from his own party.

But those are merely symptoms.

Yes, voters have forgiven similar transgressions scores of times, as former President Bill Clinton’s political survival testifies. But Sen. Ensign is held to a higher standard precisely because he was considered a champion of conservative family values. Many of his supporters simply feel he has embarrassed them — and that could be the most difficult hurdle for him to overcome.

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