By SCOTT SONNER
Associated Press Writer
FERNLEY, Nev. (AP) -- Two months after a weary looking John Ensign hastily confessed to having an extramarital affair with a former campaign aide who was his best friend's wife, the Nevada senator set out to reconstruct his image before a forgiving crowd in the Fernley Community Center.
On a hot August afternoon before plates of catered lasagna, he opened a speech with a promise to make up for his "big mistake" by working harder than ever.
But Ensign's determination to move on and rebuild his trust with voters after apologizing for the affair was met with mixed reviews during two days of carefully scripted appearances, his first events in the state since the scandal erupted.
Reaction to comments Ensign made to The Associated Press before the speech - how his indiscretion was different from Bill Clinton's because the ex-president lied under oath and his unwillingness to answer lingering questions about his own affair - show he has more work to do before he can put the scandal behind him.
The Nevada Republican was welcomed Wednesday with a standing ovation from about 100 people at a sweltering chamber of commerce luncheon in the rural agricultural community some 40 miles from Reno and far from the media scrutiny that has dogged him since his June 16th admission.
"We had a distraction go on for the last six or seven weeks in my life. I think it would be inappropriate to start any other way than to say I'm sorry," Ensign said.
That was good enough for Peggy Gray, president of the Fernley Republican Women.
"There are a lot more important things going on in Congress than that," Gray said.
"At least he didn't go to the Mustang Ranch," said Jane Lewis, editor of the local political group's newsletter, referring to one of Nevada's legal brothels.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said it made sense for Ensign to launch the rebuilding effort in a "relatively safe environment" in front of a largely GOP group before he hosted a bipartisan environmental summit the next day at Lake Tahoe.
"This is something of a classic image control move," Herzik said. "He also got back to policy issues."
Before the scandal, the handsome son of a Las Vegas casino mogul known for his affiliation with the conservative Christian group the Promise Keepers was a rising GOP star with presidential aspirations.
During a June visit to Iowa, Ensign gave a lecture about conservative values and told AP in an interview, "Our party got away from its basic principles."
Two weeks later with rumors swirling, he announced at a news conference in Las Vegas that he had carried on the extramarital affair with a staffer for much of last year.
Ensign, 51, resigned as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee the next day.
The woman, Cindy Hampton, was treasurer for two Ensign-controlled campaign committees. Hampton's husband, Doug, was Ensign's administrative assistant in his Washington, D.C., Senate office and the families were longtime friends.
Doug Hampton later said Ensign paid Cindy Hampton more than $25,000 in severance when she left her job. The next day, Ensign said his parents had written a check for $96,000 to the Hamptons and two of their children. He described the money as a gift that was not related to any campaign or official duties.
He has refused to discuss it further.
A poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in mid-July showed the number of voters with a favorable opinion of Ensign dropped 22 points to 31 percent after he acknowledged the affair. The former congressman who was first elected to the Senate in 2000 won't be up for re-election until 2012.
Before his Fernley appearance, Ensign had spent eight days in a secluded vacation with his family at Lake Tahoe where he lived for much of his youth and starred on the high school basketball and golf teams.
Prior to that, he had been "fairly invisible, which let media focus gradually fade," Herzik said. "He'll get more media scrutiny, but unless there is more to come out, media hounding on this will ultimately fade as it is `old news.'"
Fernley Mayor LeRoy Goodman said he thinks Ensign is still quite electable.
"I think he handled it well coming out forthright," Goodman said.
But the forthright approach disappeared at Lake Tahoe, a day after newscasts and talk radio shows were filled with his explanation of the distinction between his affair and Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"I said everything I was going to say yesterday," Ensign told reporters before turning and walking away.
Ensign had told The Associated Press in Fernley that he was convinced Clinton had committed a felony by perjuring himself in front of a grand jury examining the Lewinsky affair.
"I haven't done anything legally wrong," he said.
Betsy Dart, one of the few people who didn't stand to clap for Ensign in Fernley, doesn't see it that way.
"I beg to differ," said Dart, who views the affair as "a common human failing" but finds it hypocritical that Ensign "was one of the people who was very vocal about President Clinton during the impeachment hearings."
A government watchdog group calling for a Senate ethics probe of Ensign seized on his legal distinction.
"One politician comparing his illicit affair to another's is a sure sign his career is in trouble," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The host of a conservative radio talk show in Reno has uncharacteristically joined those calling for Ensign's resignation.
"It may be legally different, but is it different in terms of him representing us and him doing what he should have been doing?" KKOH's Bill Manders said while devoting most of his two-hour show to the topic in the hours after Ensign's Clinton comments.
"Sen. Ensign sat right there in that chair and talked to me about family values and the whole time knew he was doing this," he told his listeners who usually are most upset about illegal immigration, taxes and gun rights. "I'm not going to let him move on until he answers some questions."