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U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a conservative Republican from Nevada, said Monday in Sioux City his party can appeal to women and minorities on educational choice. “This is an issue we can actually take back,” Ensign said. Stirring speculation about a potential presidential run in 2012 the telegenic, silver-haired veterinarian (above) spoke to more than 100 people at the main library. Before he entered politics, getting elected to Congress in 1994, Ensign opened the first 24-hour animal hospital in Las Vegas.

The chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, a top position in his party’s leadership structure, Ensign has not declared for the presidency. But his visit to northwest Iowa drew CNN and Fox News cameras — as well as early vetting from Republicans eager for an alternative to President Barack Obama. “We need as a party new ideas,” said State Rep. Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City. “That’s the Republicans’ way back to the majority. It’s not just saying ‘We’re Republicans. It’s ‘We’re Republicans with ideas on energy, with ideas on health care, that are reaching out to younger voters, to minority voters.’” Rants, a possible gubernatorial candidate who had dinner with Ensign Monday night, said the Nevadan is doing all the right things to position himself as a national voice for the party.

Ensign touched on many conventional GOP themes, and strongly criticized Obama, but didn’t do so in harsh or shrill terms, an approach not lost on Rants. You can be just as conservative as anybody else out there, but you need to deliver that message in a non-threatening way,” Rants said. “It doesn’t change your values. It changes in how you deliver it to people.” Ensign drew some his most sustained applause at the event with his call for changes to the American educational system. “I think more choice in education will lead to better schools,” Ensign said, making the case for vouchers and other programs aimed at creating private school options for more young people in the K-12 range. Ensign said Obama’s stimulus plan, bailouts of the auto industry and budget plans, amount to a modern-day New Deal. “I don’t think we (the federal government) should be owning auto companies,” Ensign said. Of Obama’s budget Ensign said: “That was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen come to Washington, D.C.”

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