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Young Guns Rise Up

Cornyn, Ensign Staking Leadership Ground

Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and John Ensign (Nev.) appear from the outside to be locked in a behind-the-scenes duel to fill the GOP’s leadership void, but the conservative Senators’ separate ambitions could ultimately head off a direct confrontation between the two.

Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, and Ensign, the Republican Policy Committee chairman, have each become a ubiquitous presence on the national airwaves, pushing back against President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats on hot-button issues while promoting their party’s agenda. But with Cornyn interested in advancing his position in the Senate and Ensign interested in the national stage, a future struggle between the two for control of the Senate Republican Conference is not necessarily in the offing.

“Cornyn at his core is all about rebuilding and maintaining Republican majorities, and he understands that there’s a political component to that,” a senior Republican Senate aide said. “With Ensign, I don’t think his skill set is fit for a Senate leader as much as maybe a national stage.”

Speculation about a budding Cornyn-Ensign rivalry is fueled by the fact that Cornyn succeeded Ensign as NRSC chairman this cycle. Individuals close to both Senators say that their relationship is solid and that their staffs work together well.

As the 111th Congress opened, Ensign was coming off a tough election in which Republicans lost at least seven Senate seats. And, although few blamed Ensign given a Senate map that heavily favored Democrats, many saw Cornyn — the 2010 cycle chairman — as more energetic, particularly in terms of fundraising and recruiting.

But talk of tensions quickly waned as Ensign found his footing as the new GOP Policy Committee chairman. For his part, Cornyn has been credited with implementing an aggressive communications effort out of the NRSC, and Ensign has won plaudits for how he has used the Policy Committee to advance the Conference’s prerogatives on key issues.

“You have two extremely talented leaders who are coming into their own and being recognized for their talents in different ways. And each will be rewarded as the older bulls move out and younger bulls move up,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate GOP leadership aide.

Ensign agreed to helm the NRSC last cycle after a heavy lobbying campaign by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Cornyn, meanwhile, moved early to secure the post for 2010 and has indicated he would be willing to continue on for the 2012 cycle.

The NRSC post is often a key steppingstone in the Senate Republican leadership chain, with both McConnell and former Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) having run the committee. Ensign, a staunch conservative and product of the 1994 Republican revolution, always preferred to run the Policy Committee and next month is heading to Sioux City, Iowa, to deliver a speech as part of a series featuring conservative leaders.

Ensign said Wednesday that his goal as Policy Committee chairman is to promote positive, practical solutions to problems that Americans are facing today, solutions that are consistent with the party’s philosophical principles on issues like health care, energy and government spending.

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